Henry Fuseli, (born in Zurich in 1741 as Johann Heinrich Fussli), was pushed by his father into ordination in the Protestant Reformed Church, where he was taught that female artifice was sinful and designed to tempt men. He later abandoned his ordination.

Fuseli constantly had sex on his mind. He was a Romantic painter who produced more than 200 paintings and about 800 sketches and designs. He was described as a master of light and shadow. Rarely drawing from life, he depicted the human body in contorted positions evoking atmospheres of terror and the sublime.

Themes were often imbued with black magic and sexuality, sometimes bordering on the pornographic.

This exhibition in Paris reveals Fuseli’s fascination with women’s hair fashion of that time, depicting these exaggerated and unnatural styles. These coiffures were often worn by courtesans and whores but sometimes by passive women and often modelled by his wife, Sophia Rawlins.

The exhibition also demonstrates Fuseli’s preoccupation with women’s ‘backsides’ where they were subtly suggested under puckered skirts and through filmy gauze. The device of portraying females from behind made them become anonymous objects of desire.

There is an atmosphere of lust mixed with contempt for the women who dominate the few men portrayed. His painting of his wife (c 1790 -1795) shows this confusion of emotions – she is displayed heavily made-up, wearing a thin revealing dress, but holding a sewing box as a symbol of wifely duties.

In a previous newsletter I spoke about his involvement with the feminist and scholar Mary Wollstonecraft with whom he had an intense relationship. After the end of this affair he said:

“I hate clever women. They are only troublesome”.

By depicting them in tawdry and suggestive settings he seemed to be finding a way to manage his ambivalent feelings towards women.

Stella Preston