Johann Heinrich Fuseli "used to dab his beastly brush into the oil, and sweeping round the palette in the dark, take up a great lump of white, red, or blue, as it might be and plaster it over a shoulder or face. . . . I found him the most grotesque mixture of literature, art, scepticism, indelicacy, profanity, and kindness," remembered a former student.
A painter's son, Fuseli grew up immersed in classical literature and surrounded by Zurich's great thinkers, learning from a young age the kinship between painting and poetry. At eight he began copying his father's engravings.
Ordained as a clergyman in 1761-a career his father chose-Fuseli was forced out of Zurich for denouncing a dishonest magistrate. After touring Germany, he moved to London, where Sir Joshua Reynolds encouraged him to paint.
From 1770 to 1778, Fuseli taught himself in Rome. He copied Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescoes, drawn to the expressive style and the sometimes disturbing imagery. He also painted tragic or violent situations from literature, particularly Shakespeare and Milton, populated by stylized figures with exaggerated movements.
Returning to England, he renamed himself Henry Fuseli. Critical successes brought international acclaim, despite his unusually unrestrained, agitated approach. In 1799 Fuseli was named a Royal Academy professor, and he became curator there in 1804.