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The Huntington enriches British paintings collection with 'The Three Witches' by Fuseli
Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), The Three Witches or The Weird Sisters, ca. 1782, oil on canvas, 24 ¾ × 30 ¼ in. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

SAN MARINO, CA.- The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens announced today the acquisition of one of the best-known compositions by the Anglo-Swiss painter Henry Fuseli (1741–1825). In private hands since its creation around 1782, The Huntington’s version of Fuseli’s The Three Witches or The Weird Sisters appears to be a finished, full-size study, presumably made before the two other known full-size, final versions Fuseli made of the subjects. These are in the collections of the Kunsthaus Zurich, and the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon, England. After months of conservation treatment at The Huntington, the new acquisition will go on public view for the first time on Oct. 11 in the Huntington Art Gallery.

“Given the fame of The Huntington’s collection of 18th-century British paintings, it may come as a surprise that we did not already have a painting by Henry Fuseli—one of the most celebrated, notorious, and inventive artists of the period,” said Kevin Salatino, Hannah and Russel Kully Director of the Art Collections at The Huntington. “Finally we do, and a great one, a picture full of mystery and suspense. Its powerful composition packs an incredible punch, second in impact only to the artist’s famous painting The Nightmare at the Detroit Institute of Arts, which is from the same period. The acquisition of The Three Witches now fills a major gap in our collection.”

Acquiring a Fuseli has been a longstanding goal at The Huntington, as the finest examples of his work rarely appear for sale. Catherine Hess, chief curator of European art at The Huntington, said that Fuseli’s work has been sought not only because of his importance to the history of art, but also because of his relationships with Sir Joshua Reynolds and, especially, William Blake, both of whom are well represented in Huntington collections. Also, Fuseli’s fascination with the work of William Shakespeare dovetails with The Huntington’s stature as one of the premiere collections of early Shakespeare folios and quartos in the world. The Three Witches reveals a great deal about how the artist worked, said Hess. “Its surface is thickly textured with paint, and the strokes are varied and energetic, betraying a freedom and immediacy that shows Fuseli at his most experimental and expressive.” The painting depicts the pivotal moment in Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth (act 1, scene 3) when the protagonist encounters the demonic trio who foretell his fate.

“Fuseli revels in the play’s ominous mood, isolating and tripling the motif of hooded head, extended hand, and sealed lips,” said Hess. The witches’ mannish features are taken directly from the playwright’s description: “… you should be women, And yet your beards forbid me to interpret / That you are so.” They may also have been modeled on the male actors who would have played them on stage in Fuseli’s day.

The Huntington’s painting includes a gilded frame (likely added by early owners) with a quote from Aeschylus’ ancient tragedy, The Eumenides: “These are women but I call them Gorgons.” The quote also appears written on the reverse of the painting and was almost certainly provided by Fuseli, who prided himself on his erudition.

Swiss by birth and trained in Zurich as a minister, Fuseli moved to London in the 1760s, working first as a critic and translator and traveling in that city’s intellectual and cultural circles. He was noticed by Joshua Reynolds, who allegedly told him that, with study, he could become “the greatest painter of the age.” On Reynolds’ advice, he left for Rome, where he lived from 1770 to 1778 and came to revere Michelangelo, joined an international circle of artists, and developed a reputation as a “mad genius.” In the 1780s, having returned to London, Fuseli established himself as a major force on the artistic scene. His eccentric style—characterized by dramatic contrasts of light and shade, theatrical gestures, exaggerated musculature, and obscure or invented subjects that were often occult or supernatural—was frequently ridiculed, but made him famous. He was also a brilliant self-promoter, especially through the sale of reproductive engravings after his paintings.

In 1790, Fuseli was elected to the Royal Academy, later becoming Professor of Painting and then Keeper. Among his students in his long career was John Constable (represented at The Huntington with the monumental View on the Stour near Dedham). Fuseli befriended and supported William Blake, whose style was modeled on his own (The Huntington holds Blake’s illuminated manuscript of the Book of Genesis among many other treasures in its renowned Blake collection).

“Fuseli’s greatest impact was, perhaps, on the younger poet-artist William Blake,” said Salatino, “who embraced his mentor’s visionary and eccentric style as well as his love of the obscure. We look forward to the many opportunities the magnificent The Three Witches will give us to make connections across collection areas at The Huntington.”

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