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Henry Fuseli’s Milton when a youth


  

This Melbourne painting (fig. 1)* belongs to a group of pictures by Fuseli depicting episodes in the life of Milton. Arranged in chronological order they are: Milton as a boy with his mother  (Milton Gallery 38), Milton when a youth (Milton Gallery 39, fig.1), Silence (Milton Gallery 33, fig. 2), The return of Milton’s first wife, 1799–1800, Milton’s vision of his second wife, 1799–1800, and Milton dictating to his daughter (Milton Gallery 40).1 The genesis of Fuseli’s Milton Gallery was in 1790 and from then until the opening of the Exhibition, 20 May 1799, the artist painted forty paintings, in size from 4 x 3.5 metres to 1.28 x 1.02 metres, the size of Milton when a youth. Seven more paintings were added for the second show in 1800. Critically acclaimed, the Gallery was a financial failure. 

All these pictures include a woman or women, for as Samuel Johnson wrote of Milton, ‘His family consisted of women’; but he went on, ‘there appears in his books something like a Turkish contempt of females, as subordinate and inferior beings…He thought women made only for obedience, and man only for rebellion.’2 Samuel Johnson, Lives of the Poets, 4 vols, 1779–81, Oxford edn, 1952, vol. I, p. 109. Fuseli owned the four volume set, see Sotheby’s Sale of his Library, 22 July 1852, lot 89. William Hayley in his Life…, 1794–96 was much concerned in refuting Johnson’s criticisms. Yet in none of these paintings does Milton respond with ‘Turkish contempt’ to any of the women present, nor would we expect him to since in his Apology for Smectymnuus, 1642, he said how he deplored authors who wrote unworthy things of themselves or unchastely of those they had formerly praised, ‘and above all preferred the two famous renowners of Beatrice and Laura, who never wrote but honour of them to whom they devote their verse’.3 Helen Darbishire, The Early Lives of Milton, 1932, p. 112 from John Toland, Life of Milton, quoting from Apology for Smectymnuus, 1642. Since that passage was quoted in John Toland’s Life of Milton, one of the earliest biographies, Johnson must have chosen to ignore it. But it is clear that Fuseli took a view of Milton and his relationship with women whether real or fictional, that was at variance with general opinion. As I have described elsewhere, the artist was much concerned with the varying roles of women when he was planning his Milton Gallery in the 1790s.4 Peter Tomory, The Life and Art of Henry Fuseli, London, 1972, pp. 168–81. Much of his interpretation of women resulted from his discussions with Mary Wollstonecraft, as I related, so this group of Miltonic relationships was surely intended to illustrate the poet’s dependence, from childhood to blind old age, on the real women in his life and those two born of legend who inspired his poetical aspirations. 

The two fictional women appear in apocryphal stories told of Milton’s youth. The first is set in the poet’s undergraduate days at Cambridge; when he is asleep under a tree, a passing young foreign woman leaves a pencilled note of an Italian verse. On waking Milton finds the note and looks about for the young woman, but she is long gone. Later he goes to Italy and to the end of his days says that the unknown young woman had inspired him to write Paradise Lost.5 David Masson, The Life of John Milton, 1859–80, 6 vols, vol. I, p. 188. He gives as his source Todd, Life of Milton, 1809, pp. 26–27. These legends seem to have been popularised in the late 18th century and derived from both English and Italian sources. When Fuseli mistakenly cited Hayley’s Life…, he was no doubt confusing what he had heard with what he had read. Hayley’s text was in fact an accurate account. This is the legend that Fuseli used for the painting here. 

 

The other story tells of the poet while he was near Rome being given hospitality for the night by a young woman, who had her infant son by her. This is the subject of Picture XXXIII in the Milton Gallery, titled in the catalogue as II Pensieroso[sic] Silence. (Unfortunately this painting has been confused with another entitled Silence, A mother with her two children.)6 Hugh Macandrew made it clear that there were two paintings in ‘Henry Fuseli and William Roscoe’, The Liverpool Bulletin 8, 1959–60, pp. 48–9, nos 17, 24. Gert Schiff, Johann Heinrich Fussli, 1973, vol. I, p. 252, no. 915, assumed the two to be versions of the same subject. There is no way, however, that the Milton Gallery work could represent a mother with her two children. The Milton Gallery work (here represented by the engraving, fig. 2) was also catalogued with three lines from II Penseroso

Some still removed place [will fit] 

Where glowing embers through the room 

Teach light to counterfeit a gloom, 

To point up the poet’s melancholy, the artist has placed on the mantelpiece a sculpture group Menelaus supporting the dead Patroclus referring undoubtedly to the poet’s great friendship with Charles Deodati, who died while Milton was in Italy.7 Although no claim is made that Fuseli would know about it, a letter in Greek generally dated 1625, from Deodati to Milton ends with the line from the Iliad, ‘But Menelaus good at the battle cry, came univited’. The letter was in the possession of John Toland, Milton’s biographer. 

However Masson was right in describing both legends as apocryphal. There were, in fact, similar stories told about Dante’s Beatrice, Petrarch’s Laura, Ariosto’s Alessandra and Tasso’s Laura; their collective significance being that they were all Italian, and for northerners, Italy had a special attraction, for besides its culture there was its climate. Milton twice refers to the main disadvantage of England: ‘For the sun which we want [lack] ripens wits as well as fruits’, and later when he vows to finish his great poem, ‘if there be nothing adverse in our climate, or the fate of our age’.8 Quoted by Helen Darbishire, The Early Lives of Milton, 1932, pp. lvii–lviii. The quotes are from History of Britain and Reason for Church Government respectively. This was anticipating Winckelmann by about a hundred years, when he opined that Northern Europe because of its dismal climate could never create the great works of art that Greece had produced.9 J. J. Winckelmann, Gedanken uber die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in Malerei und Bildhauerkunst, 1755. Fuseli’s translation, Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks, London, 1765. Besides the fact that Fuseli translated Winckelmann’s book into English, he had himself spent nearly eight years in Rome and fallen in love there with Nannina (her surname is unknown) who lived in the palazzo Bolognetti. So had Milton, supposedly, with his three poems addressed to Leonora Baroni, the famous singer, with, 

A carriage proud and stately, and thereto 

Eyes calmly splendid of a lovely black10 Masson, op.cit., vol. I, p. 826; Milton wrote his poems in February 1639, the translation is also from Masson. Earlier opinion, e.g. Wharton, thought these poems referred to Leonora Baroni; but Masson disputed this (vol. I, p. 828). 

Fuseli certainly would not have missed the fact that both he and Milton had warmed their creative faculties under the sun of Italy. The sun was not enough, however, for either poet or painter; their genius would not flower without the attendance of a Muse. Thus the young Milton invented those legends to provide him with a Muse, then his wives successively took over her role until the last one, Elizabeth, died and was replaced by the poet’s daughters. This conception of a living muse was not new to Fuseli, for in 1760 he had written an ode to Meta Klopstock, the German poet’s young wife, who had died young in childbirth. She was his constant inspiration and through his poetry she is immortalised as the ode concludes.11 Fuseli, Ode an Meta, in Heinrich Fussli, Samtliche Gedichte, eds M. Bircher & K.S. Guthke, 1973, pp. 9–12. Meta, in fact, had encouraged Klopstock to continue work on his magnum opus Messias, in the same way that Alessandra Strozzi had helped Ariosto to continue with Orlando Furioso. Since Fuseli was widely read there is no reason to doubt that he was familiar with the anecdotes about these earlier poets. 

However, Fuseli never saw himself as a painter of anecdotes, therefore he would have seen mortal women as ‘stand-ins’ for higher beings. For instance in Silence the pose of the young woman is similar to Guercino’s figure of Night, which in turn is based on Dürer’s Melancholia, and it is Melancholy to whom Milton’s Il Penseroso is addressed. Fuseli also in his Milton Gallery composed a Melancholy (Picture XLVI), which he described in a letter to his friend William Roscoe (25 June 1800) as ‘a figure illuminated by a moonbeam from a Cupola light, Seated on a throne with attendant Genii, Something in the manner of the Sibyls of M. Angelo’. The eliding of Muse into Sibyl had occurred during the 17th century due largely to Cesare Ripa in his Iconologia describing Music and Poetry as women with pens and open books, virtually identical to the half-length figures of the Sibyls so popular at the time.12 Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia was the most used emblem book in the 17th century; it went through many editions. To Fuseli, at least, the Sibyl was a far more positive image; for not only was a Sibyl wise, she also was capable of predicting artistic destiny. Indeed, a painting he might have seen in the Royal Collection, a copy after Pietro da Cortona’s The Emperor Augustus and the Sibyl has the Tiburtine Sibyl showing Augustus a vision of the Virgin and Child, a reasonable analogy of a muse materialising an artist’s creative fancy.13 Briganti, Pietro da Cortona, 2nd edn, 1982, p. 244, pl. 285, no.18. The painting was in the Royal Collection by 1776. 

It is possible to identify Melancholy as a Muse because of the fact that the Melancholic temperament is endowed on those born under Saturn, namely those of creative talent, as Robert Burton wrote in his Anatomy of Melancholy, ‘In melancholy men this faculty [Phantasy or imagination] is most powerful and strong, and often hurts, producing many monstrous and prodigious things…In Poets and Painters imagination forcibly works, as appears by their several fictions, anticks, images…’14 Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, eds F. Dell & P. Jordan-Smith, New York, 1927, p. 139, part 1, sect.1. See also R. Kilbansky, E. Panofsky & P. Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy, New York, 1964. The 18th century saw this observation epitomised in the Graveyard school, the poets grouped around Robert Blair (The grave, 1743) and Edward Young (The complaint or night thoughts, 1742–45), both of which William Blake was to illustrate in 1805 and 1796–97 respectively. It is therefore clear on analogy that Milton’s L’Allegro would have been read as an address to the Lyric Muse and Il Penseroso as one to the Elegiac Muse, or in dramatic terms, the Comic and Tragic Muses. In 1761, Reynolds had painted the actor Garrick between these Muses and Fuseli was to do the same with the infant Shakespeare in 1805–10. Of the two Muses, Tragedy or Melancholy was inevitably superior.15 Reynolds, Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy. Fuseli, The Infancy of Shakespeare or Shakespeare between Tragedy and Comedy, 1805, p.10, best represented now by the engraving by Moses Haughton.    

 

Of Fuseli’s artistic predecessors to be inspired by Milton Francis Hayman was the most productive, not in paintings but in book illustration, for he made the plates for the Milton edition of 1750–52. Thus to bear out what has been said, Hayman’s illustration for II Penseroso (fig. 3) shows the poet being inspired by the Melancholic Muse, ‘All in a robe of darkest grain’, ‘the wand’ring moon, Riding near her highest noon’, while the poet sits near ‘some wide watered shore’.16 Il Penseroso, lines 33, 67–68, 75; Hayman illustrated by Marcia Pointon, Milton and English Art, 1970, pl.5, and comment 57. The composition is similar to the Augustus and Sibyl type mentioned earlier, while the pose of the poet is virtually identical to that of Democritus at the top of C. Le Blon’s titlepage for Burton’s Anatomy of melancholy (fig. 4), for which Burton’s observation can be quoted, ‘Albertus Durer paints Melancholy like a sad woman leaning on her arm with fixed looks, neglect habit and held therefore by some proud, soft, sottish, or half-mad, as the Abderites esteemed of Democritus’.17 Le Blon’s titlepage appeared in the 1628 edition: On Dürer, Burton, op. cit., p. 344, part 1, sect. 3. 

  

 

As an illustrator Fuseli thought Hayman ‘sometimes succeeded well’ but observed that he was a character ‘which seldom assimilates with, or forgives the rising generation’.18 Pilkington’s Dictionary of Painting, ed. Fuseli, 1805, p. 236. This suggests some encounter that Fuseli had had with the older artist who had shown scant sympathy for the younger man’s interpretations. Nevertheless, Fuseli did get some ideas from Hayman’s illustration, inferring, reasonably enough, that Fuseli’s work has some relationship with II Penseroso, despite the fact that in a letter to William Roscoe (18 June 1800) the artist described his subject as Milton when a youth, with an Italian Lady contemplating him in his sleep.19 The Collected English Letters of Henry Fuseli, ed. David Weinglass, 1982, p. 213. However, in the catalogue of the Milton Gallery the title is given as Milton when a youth. Picture XXXIX with no other comment and since there were longer titles and even lines from Milton’s poems in the other entries, it cannot be considered a ‘short title’. Since the Milton Gallery opened on 20 May 1799 for two months, opened again on 21 May 1800 and finally closed on 18 July, Fuseli, in his letter to Roscoe of the previous month, may have felt it necessary to expand on what was a very enigmatic title. 

There seems, then, a distinct possibility that the artist after having been initially inspired by the legend moved away from an anecdotal rendering to an interpretation of greater significance, one that would encapsulate the elements of this moment of poetic inspiration. 

It is obvious that Milton when a youth is short of essential data. As Schiff has pointed out the young woman is dressed à la Directoire, c. 179520 Schiff, op. cit., p. 220.; she carries no note; while the young poet sleeps, he is in a cave, whereas the anecdote reports that he was under a tree. While some of the artist’s sources have been difficult to find, Fuseli always supplied sufficient details for the correct text to be identified.  

We can now take up the relationship with Il Penseroso proposed earlier. The young woman can be immediately identified by the following lines: 

Come, pensive Nun, devout and pure, 

Sober, steadfast and demure, 

All in a robe of darkest grain As for the young poet, there are these lines: 

And when the sun begins to fling His flaring beams, me, Goddess, bring 

To arched walks of twilight groves There, in close covert, by some brook, 

Where no profaner eye may look, 

Hide me from the day’s garish eye, Entice the dewy-feathered Sleep, 

And let some strange mysterious dream 

Wave at his wings, in airy stream 

Of lively portraiture displayed,

Softly on my eyelid laid; 

And, as I wake, sweet music breathe 

Above, about, or underneath, 

Sent by some Spirit to mortals good, 

Or th’ unseen Genius of the wood.21 Lines, 31–3,131–3,139–41,146–54. 

Robert Burton discusses at length the Symptoms of Maids’, Nuns’, and Widows’ Melancholy, but he does say that they are ‘timorous fearful, sad’ and ‘love to be alone and solitary’.22 Burton, op. cit., p. 354, part 1, sect. 3. What Milton meant was that the Melancholic Muse was a woman apart like a nun, ‘sober, steadfast and demure’. As a Muse she is ever present, and in Fuseli’s phrase, she represents a ‘poetic timelessness’; her dress, therefore, is of no significance.23 Schiff, op. cit., p. 220. 

As for the young poet seeking out the ‘twilight groves’, there is William Duff’s observation in An Essay on original Genius, 1767, ‘A Poet of true Genius…indulging a sublime, pensive, and sweetly- soothing melancholy, strays with a slow and solemn step, through the unfrequented desert, the naked beach, or the bleak and barren heath’.24 Quoted in L.M. Trawick (ed.), Backgrounds of Romanticism, 1967, p. 121. While the poet sleeps, we know from Burton, ‘Phantasy or imagination… In time of sleep this faculty is free, and many times conceives strange, stupen[dous], absurd shapes’.25 Burton, op. cit., p. 139, part 1, sect. 1. Not visible in the illustration but certainly in the painting, are strange shapes ‘floating’ on the rock face above the reclining poet.26 The ‘shapes’ are reddish purple heightened with grey, and do not seem to be rock forms. There is ivy with reddish stalks on the right side of the cave. These shapes are explained by Alexander Gerard in An Essay on Taste, 1759, ‘the ideas assembled by fancy…must lead the thoughts, not to the corporeal forms of things, but to the signs, with which by the common use of language, they are connected’.27 Gerard, p. 175. On waking, Milton’s poet hears ‘sweet music’, the poetic realisation of ‘the ideas assembled by fancy’. 

Fuseli had long been familiar with these conceptions of poetic inspiration, which he had adapted for expression in his own paintings. 

From as early as 1763 in Berlin one of his mentors, the philosopher Johann Georg Sulzer, had no doubt discussed with him his ideas on artistic inspiration, for they were to appear in his influential Allgemeine Theorie der schonen Kunste und Wissenschaft, 1771–74. Sulzer wrote as follows, ‘the thoughts and ideas which ensue from the persistent contemplation of an object…finally at the proper moment come suddenly to light…At that instant we see the relevant object – which up to then has hovered before us darkly and confusedly like a formless phantom standing before us in a form clear and complete’.28 Sulzer, quoted by M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp, 1958, p. 203. This is what Fuseli, from his reading of Lessing’s Laocoön would have called a ‘waking dream’29 Lessing, Laocoön, discussed in Tomory, op. cit., p. 182.; that when the poet wakes, his muse or inspiration will resolve into the artistic image ‘clear and complete’. 

Reverting to the anecdote, the Italian woman can be identified as a Sibyl, since these wise women generally announced their prophecies in verse, for the lines of Italian verse she writes out, are in effect a prophecy of destiny, whereas Fuseli from the selected lines of II Penseroso composes the creation of art itself or Truth herself. She emerges shining from a shifting magma of vague shapes and sombre forms, rather as Goya showed Truth in Plate 79 of his Disasters of War, 1808–14; a young woman with light radiating around her. Fuseli achieves the same effect with the bright light of the cave mouth. 

Despite its dependence on tradition, Fuseli’s painting is a truly romantic creation, since it is virtually echoed in Byron’s poem Mazeppa, 1819, an allegory of the pain of poetic creation and the eventual emanation of art, portrayed by the story of the youthful Mazeppa, bound naked and upside down on the back of an unbroken stallion, which sets off in a wild gallop on a danger-strewn journey from Poland to the Ukraine, where it falls dead. Mazeppa more dead than alive is still pinioned semi-unconscious to its back, and awaits death: 

I know no more – my latest dream 

Is something of a lovely star 

Which fix’d my dull eyes from afar, 

And went and came with wandering beam, 

And of the cold, dull, swimming, dense 

Sensation of recurring sense, 

And then subsiding back to death, 

And then again a little breath,

 A little thrill, a short suspense, 

An icy sickness curdling ο ‘er 

My heart, and sparks that crossed my brain 

A gasp, a throb, a start of pain, 

A sigh, and nothing more. 

I woke—where was I?—Do I see 

A human face look down on me? 

And is it mortal, you bright eye, 

That watches me with gentle glance?30 Mazeppa, Cantos XVIII, XIX. 

This was a more galvanic Muse, but the imagery remains the same as that Fuseli depicted twenty or so years before in his Milton when a youth.  

 Peter Tomory, La Trobe University, (in 1986).

Notes

* Previously referred to in publications of the National Gallery of Victoria as An Italian woman contemplating the young Milton asleep.  

 1             The genesis of Fuseli’s Milton Gallery was in 1790 and from then until the opening of the Exhibition, 20 May 1799, the artist painted forty paintings, in size from 4 x 3.5 metres to 1.28 x 1.02 metres, the size of Milton when a youth. Seven more paintings were added for the second show in 1800. Critically acclaimed, the Gallery was a financial failure. 

2              Samuel Johnson, Lives of the Poets, 4 vols, 1779–81, Oxford edn, 1952, vol. I, p. 109. Fuseli owned the four volume set, see Sotheby’s Sale of his Library, 22 July 1852, lot 89. William Hayley in his Life…, 1794–96 was much concerned in refuting Johnson’s criticisms. 

3              Helen Darbishire, The Early Lives of Milton, 1932, p. 112 from John Toland, Life of Milton, quoting from Apology for Smectymnuus, 1642. 

4              Peter Tomory, The Life and Art of Henry Fuseli, London, 1972, pp. 168–81. 

5              David Masson, The Life of John Milton, 1859–80, 6 vols, vol. I, p. 188. He gives as his source Todd, Life of Milton, 1809, pp. 26–27. These legends seem to have been popularised in the late 18th century and derived from both English and Italian sources. When Fuseli mistakenly cited Hayley’s Life…, he was no doubt confusing what he had heard with what he had read. Hayley’s text was in fact an accurate account. 

6              Hugh Macandrew made it clear that there were two paintings in ‘Henry Fuseli and William Roscoe’, The Liverpool Bulletin 8, 1959–60, pp. 48–9, nos 17, 24. Gert Schiff, Johann Heinrich Fussli, 1973, vol. I, p. 252, no. 915, assumed the two to be versions of the same subject. There is no way, however, that the Milton Gallery work could represent a mother with her two children. 

7              Although no claim is made that Fuseli would know about it, a letter in Greek generally dated 1625, from Deodati to Milton ends with the line from the Iliad, ‘But Menelaus good at the battle cry, came univited’. The letter was in the possession of John Toland, Milton’s biographer. 

8              Quoted by Helen Darbishire, The Early Lives of Milton, 1932, pp. lvii–lviii. The quotes are from History of Britain and Reason for Church Government respectively. 

9              J. J. Winckelmann, Gedanken uber die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in Malerei und Bildhauerkunst, 1755. Fuseli’s translation, Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks, London, 1765. 

10           Masson, op.cit., vol. I, p. 826; Milton wrote his poems in February 1639, the translation is also from Masson. Earlier opinion, e.g. Wharton, thought these poems referred to Leonora Baroni; but Masson disputed this (vol. I, p.828). 

11           Fuseli, Ode an Meta, in Heinrich Fussli, Samtliche Gedichte, eds M. Bircher & K.S. Guthke, 1973, pp. 9–12. 

12           Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia was the most used emblem book in the 17th century; it went through many editions. 

13           Briganti, Pietro da Cortona, 2nd edn, 1982, p. 244, pl. 285, no.18. The painting was in the Royal Collection by 1776. 

14           Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, eds F. Dell & P. Jordan-Smith, New York, 1927, p. 139, part 1, sect.1. See also R. Kilbansky, E. Panofsky & P. Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy, New York, 1964. 

15           Reynolds, Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy. Fuseli, The Infancy of Shakespeare or Shakespeare between Tragedy and Comedy, 1805, p.10, best represented now by the engraving by Moses Haughton. 

16           Il Penseroso, lines 33, 67–68, 75; Hayman illustrated by Marcia Pointon, Milton and English Art, 1970, pl.5, and comment 57. 

17           Le Blon’s titlepage appeared in the 1628 edition: On Dürer, Burton, op. cit., p. 344, part 1, sect. 3. 

18           Pilkington’s Dictionary of Painting, ed. Fuseli, 1805, p. 236. 

19           The Collected English Letters of Henry Fuseli, ed. David Weinglass, 1982, p. 213. 

20           Schiff, op. cit., p. 220. 

21           Lines, 31–3,131–3,139–41,146–54. 

22           Burton, op. cit., p. 354, part 1, sect. 3. 

23           Schiff, op. cit., p. 220. 

24           Quoted in L.M. Trawick (ed.), Backgrounds of Romanticism, 1967, p. 121. 

25           Burton, op. cit., p. 139, part 1, sect. 1. 

26           The ‘shapes’ are reddish purple heightened with grey, and do not seem to be rock forms. There is ivy with reddish stalks on the right side of the cave. 

27           Gerard, p. 175. 

28           Sulzer, quoted by M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp, 1958, p. 203. 

29           Lessing, Laocoön, discussed in Tomory, op. cit., p. 182. 

30           Mazeppa, Cantos XVIII, XIX.