Monday, 30 October 2017


Henry Fuseli's Macbeth

I began my professional career in the theatre as a Director, ending up Associate Director at the Oxford Playhouse.

Here I worked with Judi Dench, Ian Mckellan, Ian McShane ('Lovejoy'), Leo McKern ('Rumpole of the Bailey), Leonard Rossiter ('Rising Damp') and many more wonderful actors.

During my period at The Oxford Playhouse I directed a wide range of plays, including several  by Shakespeare - but never Macbeth.

Which brings me to my featured artist - Henry Fuseli (1741-1825).

Henry Fuseli was a Swiss artist who first came to London in 1761 where Joshua Reynolds encourage him to become a professional painter.

After studying in Italy, Fuseli came back to England where, many years later, he became Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy.

Fuseli's interest in Shakespeare's Macbeth dates back to 1760 when he saw David Garrick in the part of Macbeth.

It must have made a deep impression on him because he did not get round to painting his memory of that production until fifty years later!

What distinguishes Fuseli's work from other representations of this play is his remarkable sense of drama and his use of what is best described as 'stage lighting' to give emphasis to each character against a pitch-black 'backdrop' 

 Zoffany - MacBeth 

If you compare his work with, for example,  Johann Zoffany's efforts (see above) then one can see at once the superior quality of Fuseli's treatment of this subject

This is the same production, starring Hannah Pritchard and David Garrick, that Fuseli first saw
in 1760 but how different Fuseli's treatment is from Zoffany's!

Sarah Siddens  - 1814

Even as great an actress as Sarah Siddens is shown in a pose that is, frankly, somewhat ridiculous and entirely without drama. This particular representation (above) is by George Henry Harlow

Compare that with Fuseli's 'portrait' of Lady Macbeth in full flight!

Occasionally other artists start to get closer to the action. Take, for example, Rossetti's study for Lady Macbeth in her madness:

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Lady Macbeth (1875)

There are elements of drama here but it is still rather static and very two-dimensional.

Indeed, in the history of this particular genre, few artists have captured those elements that make stage productions so exciting - a sense of movement, dramatic lighting and raw emotion. 

Henry Fuseli captures all that, even in small character drawings - as in his celebrated study for the three witches of 1783:

When he pulls out all the guns, well, the result is hugely effective:

 One gets a real sense of what the stage production itself must have felt like for an engrossed audience drawn into the horror and excitement that is Shakespeare's Macbeth

Mike Healey

If you would like to see other work by Henry Fuseli, then click on the link below:

If you would like to see how artists have treated other plays by Shakespeare, then click on the link below:


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