‘Thou art the man!’ Fuseli’s highly original interpretation of the Old Testament narrative depicts the dramatic moment when the Prophet Nathan appears in front of King David to rebuke him for having let the Hittite soldier Uriah be killed in battle in order to take the latter’s wife, Bathsheba, as his own (Samuel 2, 12 1-14). It suited Fuseli’s love for the theatrical to focus on the point in the story when Nathan confronts David: the bearded Prophet lunges towards the King, with an accusatory outstretched finger which he jabs at David’s chest. According to the Old Testament, Nathan was to tell David that although God forgave him, he would be punished for his sins and the child from his illicit relationship with Bathsheba would die. Weinglass speculated that the armed youth in the background may represent this son, although this seems unlikely as the Bible seems to suggest this was a young child. It is more probable that Fuseli depicts a youthful guard, whose startled expression acts as a proxy for the viewer and accentuates the drama of the scene that enfolds. What marks out Fuseli’s drawing is the violence of Nathan’s sudden movement up from the stool before David, so quick that the guard can only turn his head to catch the old man as he confronts the King.
The drawing dates from the eight years Fuseli spent in Rome, where between 1770 and 1778 he established himself as a leading light in an international artistic circle, members of which had a common desire to revitalize modern art through a primal expressionism that moved beyond the more subdued Neoclassical experiments in history painting of an older generation of painters, notably Benjamin West and Gavin Hamilton. For Fuseli and his circle—which included the Scottish painter Alexander Runciman and the English artists Thomas Banks and George Romney—this reformist agenda was almost wholly served by their experimentation in drawing. Fuseli’s radical agenda meant many of his Roman drawings challenge convention both in their subversion of traditional ideas about genre and subject matter, but also in their formal qualities. Of his Roman experience, Fuseli wrote in 1778, ‘with the sound of Rome my heart swells, my eye kindles, and frenzy seizes me’.
Fuseli’s drawing has some hallmarks of the composition of a Neoclassical history painting: The frieze-like structure and compressed perspective forces our attention on the central figure of David, with his trademark lyre. However, if the purpose of traditional history painting was the celebration of noble virtues, Fuseli challenges this convention by presenting us with the flawed character of David whose sinful deeds compromise the viewer’s empathy. Fuseli accentuates the sense of David’s depravity by using a series of washes, contrasting light with dark, in a dramatic, almost abstract composition, a dark shadow looming over David’s guilty head.
Fuseli’s Roman drawings self-consciously looked to earlier artistic models, notably Michelangelo but also his 16th- and 17th-century Mannerist followers. This drawing in particular shows the artist’s careful observation of Michelangelo’s muscle-bound heroes on the Sistine chapel ceiling but with its simple outlines and defined areas of wash is also reminiscent of the drawings of the Genoese painter Luca Cambiaso (Museo del Prado, D002988). Nevertheless, Fuseli as usual goes beyond his forbears: His figures have an excessiveness and distortion which surpasses the monumentality of Michelangelo. Fuseli has created his own unique technique which combines an expressive, fluid use of line with the stark geometries of light and dark tonal wash.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the aesthetic qualities of this drawing appealed to the American architect, property developer, amateur artist and collector Ian Woodner. His extraordinary and important collection of over 1000 drawings, acquired between the mid-1940s up until his death, while wide-ranging, showed a particular preference for the masters of the early Italian and Northern Renaissance. Fuseli’s combination of a classical vocabulary with an expressive originality and lightness of touch would have appealed to the American collector’s discerning search for beauty.❖
Dr. Jessica Feather