This extraordinary, recently rediscovered drawing was made in 1811 when Fuseli was in his seventieth year, by then a well-established figure in London’s art world, being both Professor of Painting and Keeper at the Royal Academy Schools. In contrast to the paintings he exhibited regularly at the Academy’s annual exhibition, drawings like this were private. It was not intended to be exhibited, and was not a study for a painting, or made for an engraving. This drawing therefore represented an opportunity for the artist to express his most creative and fantastical ideas. In this context, it is no surprise that the drawing is gloriously elusive in its meaning.
In a typically dramatic composition, Fuseli juxtaposes the solidity of a musclebound male, who resembles an écorché figure, with the fragile, other-worldly qualities of a spirit leaving his body. The foreground figure kneels, intently engaged with a miniature human held in one of his hands. The verso is equally intriguing: in a practice employed in many of his drawings, Fuseli has traced the main figure through from front to back in this case, allowing him to experiment by adding a cowl and omitting the miniature figure.
The subject seems to recall the myth of Prometheus in which the Titan formed mankind from the earth, a narrative Fuseli would certainly have known from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The fleeing spirit resembles the personification of Time fleeing in Fuseli’s Allegory of Vanity made in the same year (Auckland Art Gallery, 1965-61); but it might also reference Athena who features in some versions of the Prometheus creation myth.
But this interpretation is complicated by Fuseli’s Latin inscription. This may be a quotation or literary allusion but if so, its source for the most part is not obvious. It translates as: ‘You, do not ask, for it is not permitted for you to know, who first uprooted me, nor should you think that the menacing word CERATONIAE, can safely be uttered by a virginal mouth’. ‘CERATONIAE’ appears to be derived from ceratium, the Latin word for carob tree, but why it should be menacing remains obscure. So, while the reference to ‘uprooting’ may allude to the Prometheus myth of creating humans from the earth, the inscription as a whole and the reference to a carob tree do not fit neatly with this interpretation. Indeed, it is notable that although Fuseli depicted the subject of Prometheus in a handful of drawings around this period, these other works focus on the much more familiar and easily readable myth in which the Titan was punished by Zeus for stealing fire by being chained to Mount Caucasus (see for example Prometheus and Io, ca.1800–10 [1965–68] and Prometheus Secured to Mount Caucasus, ca. 1800–10 [1965–80], both Auckland Art Gallery).
While we cannot dismiss the possibility that the theme of Prometheus was present in the artist’s mind, the drawing also has strong thematic and formal echoes of another of Fuseli’s subjects, that of witches digging up mandrake roots. This was a subject which Fuseli apparently based on Ben Johnson’s Masque of Queens, but in truth simply spoke to the artist’s interests in magic and folklore. In many traditions, the digging up of a mandrake root, which is said to bear a resemblance to a human figure, had occult connotations and fatal consequences. Fuseli first turned to this subject in A Mandrake: A Charm (ca. 1785; Yale Center for British Art, B1981.25.291) but around 1811, the time our drawing was made, the artist returned to the theme, making The Witch and the Mandrake (ca. 1811–12; Ashmolean Museum, WA1863.1084) for engraving. The Ashmolean work, in which a crouching, grotesque witch is seen coaxing out of the earth a mandrake root in the form of a small figure, bears a striking resemblance to our drawing with its miniature figure being formed or pulled from the clay. Again, this echoes the Latin word ‘evulserit’ in the inscription. The striking fact that Fuseli had returned to the subject in 1811 suggests it may have been on his mind when the present drawing was made.
Despite the drawing being relatively worked up, there is no evidence to suggest that it was made for anything other than private viewing. It was made at Queen’s Elm in Chelsea, as indicated by the initials ‘Q.E.’ in the inscription, the home of Fuseli’s friend Lavinia De Irujo (1794–1866), the daughter of a Spanish diplomat, but it is not apparent that it was intended even for her viewing. It was made, seemingly spontaneously, on the back of an envelope and was probably not shown to anyone. This tiny masterpiece, the drawing was an exercise in private experimentation whose narrative combines classical references and folkloric allusions, but which remains ambiguous and defies convention.❖
Dr. Jessica Feather