Although he began his career as an academic and moral philosopher, Henry Fuseli became focused on painting at the encouragement of Sir Joshua Reynolds, whom he met in London in 1767 or 1768. A trip to Italy in the early 1770s accelerated this new passion, exposing the artist to the dramatically expressive works of Michelangelo, Parmigianino, and Rosso Fiorentino, which would inform Fuseli's bold, rhythmic, psychologically penetrating compositions for years to come. As early as the 1780s, Fuseli began to depict subjects from Shakespeare and Milton, which gave him the opportunity to explore his interest in the supernatural, demonic, and mythological. Like his contemporary and friend William Blake, Fuseli transformed the rich texts of these English literary geniuses into the bizarre and occasionally disturbing imagery for which his art is renowned. In the mid-1780s, Fuseli first began to address Shakespeare's Macbeth, which inspired him on more than one occasion. As early as 1783 he painted the three witches, or Weird Sisters (who appear at left in the present composition), a theme which he revisited several times (see fig. 1). In 1784 he completed Lady Macbeth Sleepwalking (Paris, Louvre), which helped establish the critical success that led to his election as Associate of the Royal Academy in 1788 and full Academician in 1790.
The present work, dated by Schiff to c. 1800-1810, was made during Fuseli's tenure as Professor of Painting at the Academy, a position he was granted in 1799 (his students would include such leading lights of the next generation as Edwin Landseer and John Constable). The Three Witches Appearing to Macbeth and Banquo was painted during the artist's most intense period of fascination with Shakespeare's great tragedy, which Fuseli in fact translated into German in 1804. Indeed, on 26 March 1804 the landscapist Joseph Farrington reported in his diary that "Fuseli speaking of Shakespeare said that if Macbeth only was put against all the works that had since been produced by a succession of Poets Dryden and Pope included it should be preserved though the whole were to be sacrificed for it." This shadowy scene, in which tense, sinuous figures emerge like bolts of lightning against a vague, receding darkness, epitomizes the artist's belief that imagination and expression, not the ideal of beauty, constitute the very highest state of art.
Macbeth Act 1, Scene 3:
Banquo: What are there,
So wither'd and so wild in this attire
That look not like th'inhabitants o' the earth,
And yet are on't? Live you? or are you aught
That man may question? You seem to understand me,
By each at once her choppy fingers laying
Upon her shiny lips: you should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so
Macbeth: Speak, if you can: what are you?
First Witch: All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!
Second Witch: All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!
Third Witch: All hail, Macbeth! that shalt be King hereafter!