Between Fantasy and Angst: Assessing the Subject and Meaning of Henry Fuseli’s Late Pornographic Drawings 1800-1825’

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Colleges, School and Institutes


This article examines four sexually violent drawings by the Anglo-Swiss artist Henry Fuseli, in order to assess how they functioned as both personal fantasies and vehicles for institutional criticism. It relates Fuseli’s images to the libertine fiction of Sade and London’s illicit underworld, arguing that the artist’s works can be firmly located alongside growing libertine tendencies in a pan-European market. Moreover, the exquisite dress, nudity and physical power displayed by Fuseli’s protagonists, combined with pseudo-religious rituals of circumcision, reveal his complex relationship with intuitional modes of control and regulation, developed during his ministerial training in Zurich. For Fuseli, the restraints as a Royal Academician appear to have been tantamount to the severity of Zurich’s seminary thirty years earlier, both of which prove to be generative factors in shaping his illicit material. Fuseli’s pornographic drawings were not a public, rebellious descent into Sadean nihilism; rather they exemplify a type of ‘revolt without revolt’ as remote, experimental products of a privileged individual discovered only after his death in 1825.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)420-447
Number of pages27
JournalArt History
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 14 Jun 2010


  • Pornography, Libertinism, Sade, Fuseli, Academy, Zurich, Violence