Sunday, September 5, 2010
John Henry Fuseli - The Vision of the Deluge
Price Realized £100,150
oil on canvas
100 x 82¾ in. (254 x 210 cm.)
The Early Nineteenth Century Pictures in the Forbes Magazine Collection and the Decline of Traditional Academic Values
The Forbes Collection, with its concentration on Victorian art, contains a high proportion of works with narrative subject matter. Not surprisingly, this predominance also occurs in the earlier nineteenth-century pictures in the Collection which, in a more balanced selection, would be dominated by portraits and landscapes. This distribution, however, casts an interesting light on one of the main problems of subject painting in the early nineteenth century, the collapse of the academic standards based on High Renaissance values and given most recent expression in England by the establishment of the Royal Academy in 1768 and the Discourses of its first President, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792). Under these criteria, the most important category of art was the work with the most important subject, usually Biblical or historical, told in a suitable style based on the appropriate Old Master; landscape and portraiture came well below in the hierarchy of genres. The onset of Romanticism was at first contained within this academic theory, but eventually helped to bring about its collapse.
The Forbes Collection contains no portraits from the years up to 1848 (the foundation of the Pre-Raphaelite movement), and the only pure landscape, by David Cox (1783-1859), dates from about that crucial year. The Collection does, however, contain a number of historical landscapes, in which important subjects, suitable to the highest aspirations of art, are wedded to the lower genre of landscape. A good example of this is The Return of Ulysses, again of 1848, by John Linnell (1792-1882). Although Linnell painted a considerable number of landscapes with Biblical subjects, this is a very rare example of his painting a classical subject, a fact emphasised by his quoting from Homer in Greek in an inscription on the actual picture. The composition goes back to those pictures of J.M.W. Turner most inspired by the ideal Old Master of the genre, Claude, beginning with the near-copy after Claude, Apullia in Search of Apullus, of 1814, and progressing in a great series of exhibits until the end of the 1830s. Even the sky is Turnerian, to emphasise the bloody deeds awaiting Ulysses on his return to Ithaca.
The Good Samaritan, 1843, by William James Müller (1812-1845) is another example of a landscape painter using his preferred mode of expression to enhance the status of his work. Essentially a landscape painter from nature, his introduction of cliffs and a few palm trees barely affects the general approach of his depictions of English scenery, despite his first-hand experiences of the Near East.
Francis Danby (1793-1865) marked his arrival in London in 1824 by undertaking some far more ambitious essays in the genre of historical landscape. Christ Walking on the Sea, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1826, is a prime example, challenging Turner's largest sea-pieces in its scale, as also did the rising star John Martin (1789 -1854). Danby also echoed some of Turner's less ambitious studies in the creation of mood and atmosphere solely through the evocation of different effects of light and weather, as in Calais Sands, Low Water, Poissards Collecting Bait, R.A. 1830, or the unfinished Evening Star of much the same date. Danby's own efforts were followed by his son James Francis Danby (1817-1875) in his The Rescue, exhibited in 1858.
John Martin himself is represented in the Forbes Collection by one of his most dramatic masterpieces, Pandemonium, an illustration to Milton's Paradise Lost painted in 1841. Typically, this develops aspects of Turner's art, such as the contrasting effects of light and the receding diagonal of the building that dominates the composition of, for instance, Ancient Rome: Agrippina landing with the Ashes of Germanicus, R.A. 1838, which his own interest in categorising architecture and such exciting new industrial developments as that of gas lighting, here contrasted with the primaeval river of molten rock that flows through his imaginary setting. The classical restraints of the academic historical landscape, based on the example of Claude and Poussin, are here developed with a degree of exaggeration and sensationalism that looks forward to the epics of Hollywood.
Much more academic in his emphasis on the figure, but equally sensational in his imaginative vision, is the work of Johann Heinrich Füssli, or Fuseli as he became in his adopted land (1741-1825). His Vision of the Deluge, another illustration to Milton's Paradise Lost painted for Fuseli's own Milton Gallery in the late 1790s, concentrates on the two main figures, based on classical prototypes, but adds a sense of horrifying frisson through the suggestion of the about-to-drown girl, whose sex is subtly suggested by the delicate pale hand and the bracelet. Like Martin, but in the grand manner, Fuseli is tugging at the bonds of academic restraint.
Superficially representing the same attitude to high art is Manlius hurled from the Rock by William Etty (1787-1849). Here, however, the motivation is different: how to enoble the life studies that were Etty's lifelong preoccupation, and of which there are many examples in the Forbes Collection.
A direct evocation of an Old Master prototype can be seen in The Baptism of Christ by James Ward (1769-1859). Here the elongated format stresses its dependence on the altarpieces of Veronese, though even this model reflects a softening in its acceptances of a Venetian rather than a Florentine or Roman example.
Alfred Edward Chalon (1780-1860) similarly bases his study for Automne 1848, on an (unsuited) painterly model, Rubens, while the illustration to Shakespeare's Two Gentleman of Verona by Thomas Stothard (1755-1834) demonstrates the delicate, prettified side to neo-classicism, close to the book-illustrations that also occupied Stothard and based heavily on French models, in particular, Watteau. Sir David Wilkie (1785-1845), whose earlier works astounded London in the years following his arrival in 1805 with their combination of 'the spirit of Teniers and Hogarth', and very unsuitable models for academic theorists, moved to an equally unsuitable, softer style under the influence of Murillo, whom he studied during his tour of Spain in 1827-8. This is seen at its most attractive in the illustration to Cervantes Don Quixote, Sancho Panza in the Days of his Youth of 1835. All these pictures have immense charm and facility of execution, but all represent a far cry from the tenets of academic subject painting that Reynolds had sought to establish with the foundation of the Royal Academy.
The Milton Gallery, for which this picture was painted, occupied Fuseli for almost the whole of the 1790s. A number of remarkable historical and literary galleries had preceded it in the 1780s of which the most important were John Boydell's 'Shakespeare Gallery' and Thomas Macklin's 'Poets Gallery'. Such galleries had sought to celebrate the genius of British art and capture the sublimity of the great national poets in the form of paintings, as well as being commercial enterprises. Fuseli had been one of the biggest contributors to Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery, where his pictures received wide critical acclaim, but his dissatisfaction with his financial recompense and his resentment at Boydell's greater concern with profit than with the promotion of history painting prompted him to venture a scheme over which he could retain complete control. In a letter to William Roscoe, dated 17 August 1790, Fuseli expressed his determination to attain financial independence by imitating Benjamin's West's example and meditating a scheme of his own:
There are, says Mr. West but two ways of working successfully, that is lastingly, in this Country, for an artist; the one is to paint for the king, the other to meditate a scheme of Your own ... In imitation of So great a man I am determined to lay, hatch and crack an egg for myself too - if I can. (D. Weinglass, op. cit., p. 61).
Fuseli's Milton Gallery was originally conceived to celebrate Britain's greatest epic poet by providing illustrations to accompany a sumptuous new edition of Milton's works to be edited by William Cowper and published by Joseph Johnson. But Cowper's insanity forced Fuseli to go it alone. Unlike the galleries of Boydell and Macklin, Fuseli's Milton Gallery was self-capitalized. This left him chronically short of funds and he leaned heavily on the patronage of his friends, the Liverpool banker and art collector William Roscoe (1753-1831) and the Shakespeare scholars George Steevens (1753-1800) and William Seward (1737-1799), and others who were supposed to underwrite the project. It was an artistic endeavor on an heroic scale, for which Fuseli single-handedly provided all the paintings, whereas the commercial galleries relied on the combined contribution of numerous artists. The strain that this hugely ambitious project had on the painter, both mental and financial, is evident in the letters he wrote to his friends and patrons in those years. Some of the frustration and anguish he experienced he vented in a poignant letter to William Roscoe, dated 26 February 1794, in which he pleaded for moral and financial support:
Ever since I saw You I have incessantly attended to Milton, for, ever since I saw you, I have had nothing else to do - I am in a state of a man bleeding to death for want of a kind hand to stop the gash. The very work that I hoped, that I am Still Confident, would make me ... has for the present deprived me of all other helps, and must, if I can obtain no assistance, in the end undo me. (D. Weinglass, op. cit., p. 90).
The gallery opened to the public in 1799 at rooms leased from the auctioneer James Christie in the old Academy building on Pall Mall. It originally comprised forty paintings of varying formats; a further seven were later added for the exhibition in 1800. This picture, which was number 25 in the gallery, illustrates the passage in Milton's Paradise Lost where in one of six visions the Archangel Gabriel shows Adam the consequences of original sin:
...and now the thick'nd Sky
Like a dark Ceiling stood; down rush'd Rain
Impetuous... ...sea covered Sea, Sea without shore... How did'st thou grieve then, Adam, to behold The end of all thy offspring, end so sad, Depopulation!
(Paradise Lost, Book IX, v. 742-754)
The picture remained untraced until its reappearance in 1991. It was known to Gert Schiff only through a second version, in a smaller format (158 x 119 cm.), which Fuseli exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1818 (no. 226). This replica remained in the artist's possession and was in his posthumous studio sale at Christie's on 28 May 1827; it is now in the Kunstmuseum, Winterthur (G. Schiff, op. cit., 1973, no. 901). Preliminary sketches for the composition are in the Oskar Reinhart Museum, Winterthur, and the Kunsthaus, Zurich (ibid., nos. 1024-5). The original Milton Gallery picture was engraved by Normand Fils for John Young's catalogue of the Angerstein Collection of Pictures of 1823 (loc. cit.).
This picture was bought after the 1799 exhibition at the Milton Gallery by the celebrated collector John Julius Angerstein (1735-1823). Following his death, Angerstein's famous collection of old master pictures at 100 Pall Mall, London, was purchased by the British Government for £57,000 and formed the nucleus of the National Gallery which opened at his house on 10 May 1824 as the country's first publicly owned collection. Angerstein also acquired three other monumental works from the Milton Gallery: The Creation of Eve (G. Schiff, 1973 op. cit., 1973, no. 897); Satan Starting from the Touch of Ithuriel's Spear (G. Schiff, op. cit., 1973, lost work, no. 38) and Eve, new created, led to Adam (G. Schiff, op. cit., 1973, p.650, lost work, no. 40). The latter picture (now in the Kunsthalle Hamburg) is of the same size as that of the present picture before it was cut down to its present size sometime after it was sold at Christie's in 1896. Both these pictures descended to John Julius Angerstein's grandson, William Angerstein, and were sold in his sale, at Christie's in 1896. The 1896 sale included, among other masterpieces of the British School, Sir Joshua Reynolds' portraits of Mr and Mrs Angerstein, and Sir Thomas Lawrence's portraits of John Julius Angerstein, Mrs Amelia Angerstein and Mrs William Locke. Of the original forty-seven pictures exhibited in the two exhibitions at the Milton Gallery, Weinglass has accounted for nearly thirty. This is one of the six largest of the surviving original pictures.
We are very grateful to Professor D.H. Weinglass of the University of Missouri, Kansas City, for his help in preparing this entry. He will be including it in his forthcoming revised English edition of G. Schiff's catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.
at 6:00 AM