Art. History. Culture.
While on a brief excursion to Chicago last weekend I dropped by the Art Institute for a few hours. I discovered a particular work by Henry Fuseli that caused me to linger for quite a while. With subject matter related to yet another one of those epics that I haven’t read, Henry Fuseli’s Milton Dictating to his Daughter definitely caused me to do a double-take.
Fuseli is one of those painters who could convey Romanticism, a genre concerned with melancholy as well as the sublime, not only in vast spaces but also in intimate scenes. While Romanticism was often associated with grandeur and the immensity of nature, it was also an important movement in literature and overall intellectual culture characterized by intense emotion. Fuseli, a Swiss-born English painter, is one of the most fascinating romantics because of his ability to convey intense emotion through light and atmosphere. His ingenious use of perspective cannot be ignored either.
Milton Dictating to his Daughter is part of a series of works Fuseli painted about the life of 17th century English poet John Milton, author of the epic poem Paradise Lost. In this work, Fuseli paints the blind poet seated in a dim room. The only surroundings are the large, throne-like chair in which Milton is seated, and his two daughters, one seated against the wall working on her sewing and the other standing in front of them leaning against a podium upon which rests a book that she is writing in. A brightness is shown in the two girls through their light clothing, fair skin, pink lips, rosy cheeks and matching red shoes. Their father, on the other hand, is less illuminated and immersed in greyness. Milton is entirely garbed in grey clothing, a shade that also shows in his sunken face making him seem almost corpse-like were it not for his contrastingly ruddy colored hands. His milky unseeing eyes are open wide, his hands folded and his legs crossed in a pose that recalls traditional artistic depictions of melancholic genius. He leans back in his chair and calmly dictates the words of Paradise Lost to his daughter. Meanwhile, we can’t help but wonder how long they’ve been at it because of the standing girl’s tired posture and unenthusiastic tilt of her head. The source of light in the room is unknown but comes from above the trio of figures and rests directly on the standing girl. The light, in particular, rests on the girl’s pen-holding hand and arm, suggesting the most important subjects of this painting are the words being dictated onto the page.
Fuseli’s work favors the supernatural, an element that is sensed even in this real life subject because of the intense emotional atmosphere and ghostly quality of its main protagonist. He exaggerates the drama with strongly contrasting light and empty spaces with little disruption coming other objects, figures, or scenic elements. Here, Fuseli refers to the darkness of Milton’s great work, Paradise Lost, but also honors it as the grand idea that it was.