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The Death of Oedipus, by Henry Fuseli


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About the artwork

Fuseli took the subject of 'The Death of Oedipus' from the play Oedipus at Colonus, the second of the three so-called Theban plays of Sophocles. Oedipus, King of Thebes, blinded himself when he discovered that, in fulfillment of a prophecy, he had unwittingly killed his own father Laius and married his mother Jocasta, acts which had brought a curse upon the realm of Thebes. The old man, now banished from his own kingdom, but accompanied by his two daughters, Antigone and Ismene, recognises the portents of his death:

Oedipus:

'The gods themselves are heralds of my fate
Of their appointed warnings nothing fails…
This thunder, peal on peal, this lightning hurled
Flash upon flash, from the unconquered hand…'

Later, a messenger describes the scene as the thunder pealed:

'…the maids
Shivered, and crouching at their father’s knees
Wept, beat their breast and uttered a long wail…'

The works of Sophocles, written in the second half of the fifth century B.C., are now regarded as  among the masterpieces of Greek theatre, but in late eighteenth-century Britain they were still relatively little-known. Fuseli’s choice of Oedipus at Colonus as the source for this painting tapped into a growing interest in Greek plays.

At the time Fuseli made his paintings, fresh translations of the plays of Euripides and Aeschylus by the Rev. Robert Potter were enjoying a vogue in literary circles in London, and Potter had started work on translations of Sophocles. Fuseli, who as a Greek scholar could read the plays in the original, was thus positioning himself on the cusp of literary fashion while emphasising his advanced tastes.

'The Death of Oedipus' first came to Liverpool over two hundred years ago. It was one of the first pictures purchased from Fuseli by the great Liverpool collector, poet and historian William Roscoe in 1792. Roscoe was a close friend of the artist as well as one of his best patrons, eventually owning fifteen of his paintings.

He also took it upon himself to sell Fuseli’s works in Liverpool and persuaded his friends, including the collectors Daniel Daulby and Matthew Gregson, to buy pictures by him. As a result of this Liverpool in the early years of the nineteenth century was a remarkable nest of Fuseli connoisseurship.

Roscoe’s own collection was dispersed following his bankruptcy in 1816, and 'The Death of Oedipus' was later owned by Sir Thomas Lawrence, President of the Royal Academy, and the sculptor E. H. Baily. But it had returned to Liverpool by the mid-1870s, and was one of the foundation works of the Walker’s collection when the gallery opened in 1877. 

The Swiss artist Johann Heinrich Füssli (anglicised as Henry Fuseli) was born in Zurich in 1741. As a young man he concentrated on theological and classical studies and began a career as a writer, but shortly after coming to England in his mid-twenties he was persuaded by Joshua Reynolds, the leading British artist of his generation, to become a painter.

Fuseli’s character as an artist was strongly coloured by his highly educated and literary upbringing. He was keenly sensitive to latest cultural trends and theories, and he valued progressive thought, originality, and individual genius over the accepted orthodoxies and rules of painting.

The two most powerful forces upon Fuseli’s development as an artist were the German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s 'Reflections on the Painting and the Sculpture of the Greeks', which he translated into English as a young man, and the eight years he spent in Rome between 1770 and 1778 studying – as many British artists of that period did – from classical and Italian renaissance sources.

In Rome Fuseli was at the centre of a circle of progressive young artists who attempted to engage with antiquity in new ways, uncluttered by prescribed aesthetic formulae and seeking to recover the true spirit of the classical past. In these years Fuseli evolved a very personal artistic style, based on drawings in line or line and wash, and with an exaggerated, even manneristic approach to the depiction of the human figure and human emotions.

This style went hand in hand with his search for dramatic subjects to draw and paint, which he liked to find in great, and sometimes obscure, literature of the past.

Fuseli returned to London (after two years in Switzerland) in 1780. He had occasionally sent works from Rome to the exhibitions of the Royal Academy in London, but he now became a regular exhibitor and was elected to membership of the Academy by the end of the decade.

In 1782 he made a huge public impression with his painting 'The Nightmare'. With its dark setting, and its macabre and supernatural atmosphere, it explored unfamiliar areas of the human psyche, foretelling the directions art would take in the Romantic era.

'The Death of Oedipus', together with a companion work, 'Oedipus Curses his son Polynices', was one of the first major paintings in which Fuseli revisited some of the psychological and dramatic aspects of 'The Nightmare'. Fuseli exhibited the two Oedipus paintings at the Royal Academy in 1784 and 1786.