Throughout his work, Henry Fuseli was inspired by literary and classical sources. The subject of Orpheus and Euridice was of great interest in the late 18th century: Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera Orpheus and Euridice, was staged in London at the King’s Theatre in 1770, and Jean Dauberval’s ballet Orfeo was performed at the same location in 1784. A Fuseli painting, Euridice, Leaving the Kingdom of Hades, is Snatched From Orpheus was recorded in a sale catalogue of Christie’s, London (May 28, 1827) of works remaining in Fuseli’s studio two years after his death. A notation in the catalogue in Christie’s archive identifies the purchaser as Strutt, but the painting has since disappeared. There are no known descriptions of it or recorded dimensions, and no engravings of the composition are known to have been executed.
A drawing by Fuseli of Orpheus and Euridice (Oskar Reinhart Collection, Winterthur, Switzerland) was published by Gert Schiff in 1973. Schiff considered it to be the only surviving depiction of the subject. The Winterthur sheet has a recto and verso, both rapidly executed linear drawings, concerned more with conveying a general scheme of the composition than with filling out the setting.
The highly finished execution and large size of the present drawing indicate that it most likely served as a final preliminary study for the oil painting. It is drawn on the verso of a British map dated 1772 and bears the collection mark of the Earl of Warwick. In the double-sided Winterthur sheet Fuseli used ink and wash, in the present larger version he more laboriously employed chalk and pencil after establishing the overall composition. The less resolved composition and schematic representation of the figures on the Winterthur sheet suggest that they are earlier studies. The dimensions of Fuseli’s studies tended to increase as he approached the undertaking of an oil painting. The composition of the drawing is sufficiently resolved to suggest it is unlikely that Fuseli attempted yet a larger drawing with a comparable degree of finish.
A detailed discussion of the drawing, with illustrations and footnotes, was published in 1998: George Baker, “Fuseli’s Orpheus. A Drawing Found”, in On Paper, July-August 1998, pp. 15-17, ill.