The following text has been transcribed from Christie’s sale catalogue.
The sitter is probably Magdalena Hess, niece of Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801), Fuseli’s boyhood friend. In 1763, following an altercation with the son-in-law of a local Burgomaster, Fuseli accompanied by Lavater and Felix Hess (1742-1768) left Zurich and travelled to Germany. While there, they met Sir Andrew Mitchell (1708-1771), English Chargé ďAffaires in Berlin, who invited Fuseli to accompany him back to England in order to help further the connection between German and English literary worlds. Fuseli only returned once to his native country, when he spent six months in 1778 renewing his friendship with family and friends especially Hess and Lavater.
It was during this trip that Fuseli met and became friendly with Magdalena and her sister Martha. He executed a number of portraits of the sisters including drawings now in the Kunsthaus, Zurich and in Schlossmuseum, Weimer (G. Schiff, Johann Heinrich FÜssli 1741-1825. Zurich and Berlin, nos. 573-80).
Magdalena was married to the philanthropist, philosopher and radical thinker Johann Caspar Schweizer and was no less eccentric than her husband. Martha on the other hand was more ethereal and tended towards religious ecstasy. She died of consumption shortly after Fuseli left Zurich in 1779.
We are grateful to Dr. Weinglass for suggesting the present drawing dates from 1802, when many English travellers made their way to Paris, following the peace of Amiens. Joseph Farington (1747-1821) who was of the party refers to Fuseli’s visits to the suburbs to see his friends. The present sitter shows the same heart-shaped face, the straight nose and the chin of Martha Hess but is older and more self-possessed and striking presence, hence her possible identification as Martha’s oldest and last surviving sister Magdalena (d.1814).
Lavater, who became a noted phsiognomist used some of Fuseli’s drawings of Hess sisters to illustrate the English edition of his Essay on Physiognomy (published 1789-98), with which Fuseli was deeply involved, supervising the translation and the engravings and writing an introduction.
We are grateful to Martin Butlin for confirming the attribution to Fuseli upon firsthand inspection and to Dr. H. Weinglass, Emeritus Professor, University of Missouri-Kansas City, for confirming the attribution upon a photograph and for providing us with additional catalogue information.