The Huntingon has acquired its first Henry Fuseli painting, The Three Witches (or The Weird Sisters), c. 1782. It represents the fortune-telling witches in Macbeth. At 30 inches across, it’s one of three versions of the composition, the others at the Kunsthaus Zurich and the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon.
The Huntington painting is an oil study preparatory to the other two versions. The Zurich version (left) is somewhat larger and more polished in technique. It does not crop the pointing fingers and includes a death’s head moth. But the intense faces of the Huntington painting are more disturbing, and the lighting is more spectral.
By 1791 the composition was familiar enough to be fodder for one of James Gillray’s political cartoons (below). The three “Wierd Sisters” represent Lord Dundas, William Pitt, and Lord Thurlow. Rather than point out the future, they ponder an indecisive present. The moon’s faces are those of “lunatic” King George III and Queen Charlotte.
The Huntington painting was in British private collections for most of its existence. It was last auctioned at Christie’s in 2003 (for $361,500). The Huntington bought it from dealer Jean-Luc Baroni using a fund set up by George R. and Patricia Geary Johnson.
There aren’t many Fuseli paintings in America. LACMA has one, and Paul Mellon gave four to the Yale Center for British Art and one to the National Gallery of Art. The Met has another, also a witchy subject. The Huntington press release rates The Three Witches “second in impact only” to The Nightmare at the Detroit Institute of Art. Swiss-born, but active in Britain, Fuseli was just about the only major painter of the Georgian age not represented in the Huntington collection.
The Three Witches goes on view Oct. 11 (in time for Halloween). A small exhibition of drawings by Fuseli, William Blake, and their contemporaries will run Nov. 22 through March 16, 2015.