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The incubus leaving two young women

The incubus leaving two young women
oil on canvas
34 x 43 ½ in. (86.4 x 110.5 cm.)
(Possibly) Acquired from the artist by Theodor Falckeysen (1768-1814), Basel, in 1794.
Private collection since the late 19th century, from which acquired by the present owner circa 2010.
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Sale room notice
Please note this painting will be featured in a forcoming essay entitled 'Blake in the Marketplace, 2021' by Robert N. Essick in the 2022 edition of Blake / An Illustrated Quarterly.

Brought to you by

Francois de Poortere
Francois de Poortere International Director, Head of Department

Lot Essay

With almost all major works by Henry Fuseli now in museum collections, the recent discovery of his striking and psychologically complex The incubus leaving two young women marks a significant addition to his oeuvre. It is the most important work by the artist to come to market in over a generation.

According to the late David H. Weinglass, The Incubus can be seen as a counterpart to Fuseli’s masterpiece, The Nightmare, perhaps the most iconic depiction of Gothic horror in art history (fig. 1; Detroit Institute of Arts; private written communication with the owner dated 7 October 2014, a copy available upon request). The Nightmare made its debut at The Royal Academy exhibition of 1781 and its remarkable evocation of terror – as well as its strong sexual overtones – shocked and titillated both the art world and wider public alike. The painting presented no moral or message but, unlike anything presented before, was a mere projection of Fuseli’s imagination. It frightened and fascinated the public and became so popular that it was reproduced in print form and widely circulated. The Nightmare inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, William Blake’s Jerusalem and the poems of Edgar Allen Poe and became an enduring symbol of the Romantic era.

An incubus was said to be an imp or spirit that would sit atop a person as they slept, embodying the physical sensation of a nightmare. Though men could be visited, the incubus’ victims were more commonly women who were thought to be more prone to nightmares when sleeping on their back. The Nightmare represents the moment of the assault, depicting a woman, sprawled on her back in fitful sleep, with the fiendish figure perched on her chest. The Incubus, meanwhile, exhibits a significant shift in psychological focus, representing the immediate aftermath, when the victim awakens, disorientated and anguished, and the incubus flees on horseback through the window.

The composition of The Incubus is known in another, slightly larger canvas, now in Muraltengut, Zürich, acknowledged by Weinglass as the earlier version, possibly dating to the late 1780s (fig. 2). Gert Schiff identified the Muraltengut canvas as that mentioned in a letter from Fuseli to William Roscoe, dated 16 February 1793 (G. Schiff, Johann Heinrich Füssli, Zürich, 1973, p. 526). In his letter, the artist reported having received 30 guineas from the Swiss publisher, Theodor Falckeysen, who was to reproduce the image: ‘Mr. Falckeisen einem jungen Kupferstecher und Landsmann von mir, für ein kleines Bild von einem Mädchen, das erwacht, nachdem die Nachtmahr es bedrückt hat; er wird von diesem Bild nun einen Stich machen' (‘Mr. Falckeysen, a young engraver and compatriot of mine, for a small picture of a girl who wakes up after a nightmare which has upset her; he will now take a stab at this picture.'). Indeed, Falckeysen produced both a drawing (Oeffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel) and an engraving after Fuseli’s composition for The Incubus (fig. 3). Fuseli himself also left a drawing after his painted composition, executed subsequently in 1810 and now in the collection of the Kunsthaus, Zürich (fig. 4). The discovery of the present, smaller version of the Incubus raises the question as to whether the painting acquired by Falckeysen – specifically described by the artist as 'ein kleines Bild' ('a small picture') – may, in fact, be the painting presented here, rather than that in Muraltengut.

While the woman in The Nightmare is alone, in The Incubus the sense of horror and isolation is heightened by the presence of her resting companion who has slept peacefully through her ordeal. Both canvases, however, display a dynamic translation of a complex psychological narrative into memorable visual terms; the compositions are rhythmic and dependent on motifs from Hellenistic sculpture, exhibiting Fuseli’s customary eroticism, with semi-clad women set within a sparse and confined interior, backed by a simple curtain. As Weinglass observed, the attitude of the waking woman recalls the figure of Michelangelo’s Dawn gracing the tomb of Lorenzo de’ Medici (fig. 5; Cappelle Medicee, Basilica di San Lorenzo, Florence) and Giulio Romano’s Dream of Hecuba (Palazzo Ducale, Mantua), revealing the enduring impact of these Italian artists on Fuseli’s work.

A taste for fantastic and supernatural themes permeated culture in Britain from around 1770 to 1830 and Fuseli – with his predilection for the horrific and the erotically charged – emerged at its center. As early as the 1780s, the artist began to depict subjects from Shakespeare and Milton, providing him with an opportunity to explore his interest in the mystical, demonic, and mythological. He transformed the rich texts of these English literary titans into bizarre and occasionally disturbing imagery, in much the same manner as his contemporary and friend William Blake, who had been profoundly influenced by Fuseli (see A. Blunt, The Art of William Blake, Columbia, 1959, p. 39; R. Lister, William Blake, London, 1968, p. 138; and D. Erdman, in Blake: Prophet Against Empire, Princeton, 1954, p. 41). Blake was sixteen years Fuseli's junior and the two collaborated on a number of engraving and design projects. In his Public Address, intended to accompany his engraving of Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims, Blake lauded the elder artist, positioning Fuseli alongside Michelangelo, Shakespeare, and Milton (G. Keynes, ed. The Complete Writings of William Blake, London, 1966, p. 595). Fuseli’s works from the 1780s proved beyond doubt his claim to rank alongside Sir Joshua Reynolds and Benjamin West as a history painter and to transcend them in emotional force.

The artist was born Johann Heinrich Füssli in Zürich and was descended from a long line of bell-founders, artisans and painters. His father, Johann Caspar, was a former itinerant portrait painter, art writer and collector of early Swiss art. From him, Fuseli received rigorous art-historical training, acquainting him at an early age with the Neo-classical ideas of Johann Joachim Winckelmann and Anton Raphael Mengs. His artistic career was already underway by the age of eight when he began secretly copying prints and drawings in his father's extensive collection, using his left hand to disguise his style in the hope of avoiding detection. While Johann Caspar encouraged the artistic aspirations of his other four children, he was opposed to Fuseli himself becoming a painter. He sent his son to the Caroline College in Zürich to be educated as a clergyman and, in 1761, Fuseli was ordained a Zwinglian minister.

By then he had become a polyglot steeped in the classics, with an almost verbatim knowledge of Homer, the Nibelungenlied, Dante, Shakespeare and Milton, all of which he would later plumb for subject matter as a history painter. He eagerly absorbed the revolutionary critical theories of J.J. Bodmer and J.J. Breitinger on the nature of poetry, that led to the rise of the Sturm und Drang ('Storm and Stress') movement and eventually blossomed into full-blown German Romanticism. It was under the influence of Bodmer's political lectures that he and his friends, Johann Caspar Lavater and Felix Hess, wrote in 1762 their exposé of a corrupt Zürich magistrate, which led them to seek temporary exile in Germany. There, Fuseli was initiated into a remarkable pan-European meritocracy of thinkers and writers working to free the creative consciousness from its constricting rationalistic fetters. Shortly thereafter, in 1764, Fuseli set out for London as a spokesman for German literature and aesthetics, armed with introductions to influential individuals, many of whom, like the banker Thomas Coutts and the 'radical' bookseller, Joseph Johnson, would befriend him and become generous long-term patrons of his art.

During the next four years, Fuseli supported himself by his pen, supplementing his journalistic work by providing the booksellers with designs for book illustrations. By early 1768, however, he contemplated devoting himself to fine art and sought a meeting with the celebrated British portraitist, Sir Joshua Reynolds. The selection of drawings and etchings Fuseli showed Reynolds greatly impressed the older artist, who became convinced that Fuseli could be a successful 'colourist as well as a draughtsman', notwithstanding his lack of formal training as a painter (J. Knowles, Life and Writings of Henry Fuseli, London, 1831, I, pp. 43-4; II, p. 333; G. Bungarten, J. H. Fussli's 'Lectures on Painting', Berlin, 2005, I, p. 217).

Reynolds urged Fuseli to study painting in Italy and in 1770, he departed for Rome, travelling via Genoa and Florence. On arrival, he found himself overwhelmed both by the grandeur and scale of Roman sculptures, as articulated in his powerful drawing of The Artist in Despair over the Magnitude of Antique Fragments: the right hand and left foot of the Colossus of Constantine (fig.6; Kunsthaus, Zürich). He adopted the Italianate form and pronunciation of his name and rejected the archaism of Winckelman and Mengs which had suffused his early artistic output in favor of the dramatically expressive and heroic renderings of the human form he encountered in works by Michelangelo, Parmigianino and Rosso Fiorentino. These artists would inform Fuseli's bold, rhythmic, and psychologically penetrating compositions for years to come. He returned to London nine years later an international celebrity.

As a history painter, the bulk of Fuseli’s oeuvre comprises subjects lifted from canonical literature and antiquity, such as his Titania and Bottom and Lady Macbeth from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth both in Tate, Britain, London and The Shepherd’s Dream and The Night-Hag Visiting the Lapland Witches from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In contrast, however, his iconic The Incubus and The Nightmare have no literary source but rather derived from the darkest corners of Fuseli’s own imagination. The presence of a woman’s portrait on the reverse of the Detroit canvas (fig. 6) has led many to speculate that the sleeping woman may depict Anna Landolt, niece of Fuseli’s friend, Lavater. Fuseli fell wildly in love with Landolt while in Zürich, even proposing to her, but was rejected as a suitor, apparently causing him to spiral into bitterness. The work has been read as representing the torment of lost love, or indeed an attempt by Fuseli to exorcise his resentment by punishing Landolt with the horrifying incubus encounter.

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