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Secret, black and midnight hags

Henry Fuseli's dramatic rendering of scenes from Shakespeare were considered "pleasingly dreadful" in his day. Gillian Wolfe explores what drove him to such extremes of expression.

Henry Fuseli favoured dramatic painting. He was a brilliant and highly original illustrator of literature; Shakespeare's work, with all its drama and emotion, was an eminently suitable vehicle for his style.

Shakespeare's Macbeth had a profound influence on Fuseli. He first read the play as an adolescent in Switzerland and later attended a London production in which actor David Garrick's portrayal of Macbeth is believed to have influenced his distinctive and startling method of rendering passions.

Fuseli's work exploits the darker realms of the imagination. His first success was "The Nightmare" (1781) - a painting full of romantic horror that set the scene for the direction his work would take. His compositions are characterised by exaggerated movement, extravagant gesture and distorted form. His drawings of women are stylised and erotic. All his paintings generate an undercurrent of fear.

Witches dominated the artist's drawings for a considerable time. His first oil painting submitted to the Royal Academy translated Macbeth's harrowing "vision of the ghosts of beings who shall be". The London Chronicle in 1777 called it "most pleasingly dreadful".

In this painting of "The Weird Sisters", Fuseli brilliantly isolates the three witches' profiles and gives them the same expressions and hand and arm gestures. This repetition conveys a greater force than a single image.

The painting embodies Banquo's lines:

"What are these, So wither'd, and so wild in their attire, That look not like th'inhabitants o' th' earth, And yet are on't? Live you, or are you aught That man may question? You seem to understand me, By each at once her choppy finger laying Upon her skinny lips."

Macbeth, Act I, Scene iii For some, this work confirmed Fuseli's reputation as a "mad professor":

"his imagination, impetuous but not full, is the most incorrect thing imaginable."

Today, we are used to far less "correct" art than Fuseli's, but in his own time he was considered quite eccentric. "The Weird Sisters" has inspired many other artists. In 1785, John Raphael Smith made a mezzotint of the image which ensured its iconic fame. It became an inspiration for artists ranging from the cartoonist James Gilroy to the French Romantics Eugene Delacroix and Theodore Chasseriau.

There are several Fuseli paintings in the Dulwich Picture Gallery's exhibition, "Shakespeare in Art". Many show passionate facial expressions, as in "The Dispute between Hotspur, Glendower, Mortimer and Worcester" (Henry IV, Part 1, III.i), while Fuseli's pen and ink study of "The Death of Cardinal Beaufort" (Henry VI, Part II, III.iii) was reviewed in 1774 as having "extravagance in the ideas, wildness in the expression and violence in the actions of his figures''. "The Vision of Queen Katherine" (Henry VII, IV.ii.), on the other hand, is unusually elegant in composition and colour.

"The Weird Sisters" would be interesting for key stage 4 and 5 students to use to compare Fuseli's expressive faces with those of the baroque artist Charles Le Brun, especially his drawing of horror from "Conference sur l'Expression Generale et Particuli re", or with the wildly exaggerated facial expressions of Japanese actors, such as those by the artist Shunkosai Hokushu.

Fuseli would have seen the actors John Philip Kemble and his sister Sarah Siddons at the Covent Garden Theatre. Sarah Siddons was so electrifying in the role of Lady Macbeth that members of the audience were known to faint at the sight of her sleepwalking. Fuseli's powerful painting of "Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers" (Macbeth, II.ii), is also in the exhibition.It shows histrionics of gesture and evokes damnation. The painting by Joshua Reynolds of "Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse" is in the permanent collection at Dulwich.

Yet another Fuseli in this exhibition, "Titania Embracing Bottom" (A Midsummer Night's Dream, IV.i), shows the moment when Bottom, sitting on "this flowery bed", is caressed by Titania. While Peaseblossom scratches his head, Cobweb goes to kill a "hipp'ed humble-bee" for its "honey bag", Moth searches out nuts and an elf bears "a handful or two of dried peas" on a small dish. The words suggest a pretty image, but Fuseli's treatment imbues it with unsettling strangeness.

Fuseli uses a limited palette, so suggest that KS3-5 students try to evoke mystery by using few colours beyond monochrome and relying entirely on light and shade for dramatic effect. Look at the work of the Victorian painter John Atkinson Grimshaw, who uses light and shadow effects in landscape. Joseph Wright of Derby demonstrates brilliant light and shade contrasts in works such as "An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump" in the National Gallery. Also compare with Georges de la Tour's series of paintings of Mary Magdalene, such as "The Repentant Magdalene" (c1635), all of which are influenced by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio's use of bold contrasts of light and shade to convey his subjects with greater intensity, as in "The Supper at Emmaus" in the National Gallery.

The Dulwich exhibition offers marvellous comparisons of style using material from Shakespeare as inspiration.

Exhibition notes

Shakespeare in Art, Dulwich Picture Gallery, to October 19, 2003. Pre-opening hours for school groups by arrangement only. Contact Sarah Longair for detailsTel: 020 8299 8731

The touring company Shakespeare 4 Kids is holding an interactive workshop on Sunday, October 5, based on A Midsummer Night's Dream. It is for children aged five to 11 years and costs pound;4 per child. Contact Sarah Longair (details above)

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