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Macbeth by Fuseli

This dreamlike 1793 painting by Henry Fuseli, known as Macbeth Consulting the Vision of the Armed Head, is perhaps the finest artwork collected by Henry and Emily Folger. Many also consider it the Swiss-born artist's greatest achievement, with a subject well suited to his favored themes of nightmare, fantasy, and terror.

The painting depicts Macbeth's second encounter with the witches, in which they conjure up a series of apparitions beginning with a disembodied head—bearing a grotesque resemblance to Macbeth in Fuseli's conception. As the head delivers its warning to "beware MacDuff," the murderer-king recoils at an unbalanced angle that adds to the picture's sense of unreality.

Like many other paintings produced in England in the late 1700s, Fuseli's work was originally commissioned for a "Shakespeare Gallery"—an exhibition that charged an entry fee and sold engravings of the works displayed. Invented by Alderman John Boydell in 1789, the idea was widely imitated; this painting appeared in a Dublin-based Shakespeare Gallery that later moved to London. In 1997, the Folger agreed to lend this work and two other Fuselis to a European exhibition on the artist. During preliminary cleaning, the neatly lettered words "MACBETH ACT 4 SCENE 1 Hy FUSELI" were discovered on the frame above the painting, just as spectators at the Shakespeare Gallery would have seen them two centuries before.

Henry Fuseli. Macbeth consulting the vision of the armed head. Oil on canvas, 1793.

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To find similar stories about other items from the Folger collection, look for Infinite Variety: Exploring the Folger Shakespeare Library.

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