Blake devoted much of the year 1799–1800 to fifty visionary scenes drawn from the Bible, a commission he received from his principal patron, the government clerk Thomas Butts. About thirty of these works have been identified; it is thought that some have not survived owing to the fragility of the materials. This scene, the earliest in the New Testament narrative cycle, illustrates verses from Luke (I:11–13), in which Gabriel appears to the righteous Zacharias, a high priest of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, to announce that Zacharias’s elderly and barren wife will give birth to a son, Saint John the Baptist.
This is one of fifty paintings depicting Old and New Testament subjects ordered from the artist by his principal patron Thomas Butts. Blake mentions working on the series in correspondence of August 1799, and it was probably more or less complete by September 1800. Some thirty of the fifty paintings survive, including variants and replicas, and about two-thirds of these are devoted to New Testament subjects. More than twenty others can be identified in W. M. Rossetti’s list and elsewhere (Bindman 1977 and Butlin 1981).
This scene, the earliest of the New Testament narrative cycle, illustrates verses from Luke (1:11–13), in which Gabriel appears to Zacharias, a high priest of the synagogue, to announce that Zacharias’s elderly and barren wife will give birth to a son, Saint John the Baptist: “And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John.” Blake generally depended on his own interpretation of biblical theology rather than on outside sources to guide him, but the details included here reveal an expert knowledge of the subject.
Pale blue, red (used sparingly), and gold are typical colors for Blake. The elegant, precise, quite naturalistic detailing of the face, garments, breastplate, and appurtenances of the priest is unusual. The picture, although fragile, is in very good state for a work by Blake, despite extensive minute craquelure with cupping along the edges of the cracks and some tiny losses, which may be attributed to the artist’s flawed method. He was to some degree aware of the importance of the technique of Italian Renaissance paintings and of their reported brilliance and permanence, which he wished to imitate. That he had little knowledge of the materials with which the frescoes and panel paintings had been made is evidenced by the fact that his pictures suffer from the very difficulties he had hoped to avoid.
[2010; adapted from Baetjer 2009]
Inscription: Signed (lower left): WB
Thomas Butts, London (until d. 1845); his son, Thomas Butts Jr., London (1845–d. 1862; his estate, 1862–63); his son, Captain Frederick John Butts (1863–1903; his sale, Sotheby's, London, June 24, 1903, no. 10, for £42 to Carfax); [Carfax, London, from 1903]; Mary Hoadley Dodge, London and Wick Hall, Hove, Sussex (by 1906–at least 1927); by descent to Mr. and Mrs. William Church (Alice Dodge) Osborn, New York (by 1929–her d. 1937); William Church Osborn, New York (1937–d. 1951)
London. Carfax & Co. "Works by William Blake," January 1904, no. 9.
Bradford, England. Cartwright Memorial Hall. "Works of Art in the Cartwright Memorial Hall," 1904, no. 402.
London. Carfax & Co. "Works by William Blake," June 14–July 31, 1906, no. 9 (lent by Miss Mary Hoadley Dodge).
London. National Gallery, British Art [Tate Gallery]. "Works by William Blake," October–December 1913, no. 18 (lent by Miss Dodge).
Manchester. Whitworth Institute. "A Loan Collection of Works by William Blake," February–March 1914, no. 20 (lent by Miss Dodge).
Nottingham Castle. "Works by William Blake," April 1914, no. 13 (lent by Miss Dodge).
Edinburgh. National Gallery of Scotland. "Works by William Blake and David Scott," May 22–July 4, 1914, no. 12 (lent by Miss Dodge).
London. Burlington Fine Arts Club. "Blake Centenary Exhibition," 1927, no. 12 (lent by Miss Dodge).
Philadelphia Museum of Art. "William Blake, 1757–1827," 1939, no. 152 (lent by William Church Osborn).
Washington. National Gallery of Art. "The Art of William Blake: Bi-Centennial Exhibition," October 18–December 1, 1957, no. 2.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "William Blake," March 29–June 24, 2001, no. 15.
W[illiam]. M[ichael]. Rossetti in Alexander Gilchrist. Life of William Blake, "Pictor Ignotus": with Selections from his Poems and Other Writings. London, 1863, vol. 2, p. 225, no. 132, describes it as "The Angel appearing to Zacharias", a tempera in the collection of Capt. Butts: "Rich in colour and accessories, such as the altar-candlestick. The surface is considerably decayed".
William Michael Rossetti in Alexander Gilchrist. Life of William Blake, with Selections from his Poems and Other Writings. new, enl. ed. London, 1880, vol. 2, p. 238, no. 158.
A. G. B. Russell inAllgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Ulrich Thieme and Felix Becker. Vol. 4, Leipzig, 1910, p. 87, in the collection of Miss Dodge.
Darrell Figgis. The Paintings of William Blake. New York, 1925, pp. xi, 45, 117, pl. 38, dates it ?about 1800, and finds that "in the figure of Zacharias, and in the heavy darkness surrounding the immediate scene, the influence of Rembrandt shows strongly".
William Blake, 1757–1827. Exh. cat., Galerie René Drouin. Paris, 1947, ill. opp. p. 25.
Geoffrey Keynes, ed. William Blake's Illustrations to the Bible. Clairvaux, 1957, p. 26, no. 90, ill. p. 27.
Paul Miner. "Visions in the Darksom Air: Aspects of Blake's Biblical Symbolism." William Blake: Essays for S. Foster Damon. Ed. Alvin H. Rosenfeld. Providence, 1969, p. 470 n. 44, states that Blake "delineates with considerable accuracy the priestly clothing of Aaron" ("the golden mitre and its gold plate," breastplate, ephod [jacket], and blue robe, with, "at its hem," tinkling "golden bells and pomegranates").
David Bindman. Blake as an Artist. Oxford, 1977, pp. 121, 126, 242–43 n. 23, colorpl. II, suggests that Blake may have consulted an engraving after Rembrandt's Christ presented to the People.
Martin Butlin. The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake. New Haven, 1981, vol. 1, p. 324, no. 400; vol. 2, colorpl. 501.
Elizabeth E. Barker in Robin Hamlyn and Michael Phillips. William Blake. Exh. cat., Tate Britain, London. New York, 2001, pp. 62, no. 44, p. 299, no. 15 , c. 1799–1800, "in the richly textured glue and watercolour technique he later dubbed 'portable fresco'".
Katharine Baetjer. British Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1575–1875. New York, 2009, pp. 178–80, no. 88, ill. (color).
Jonny Yarker inBritish Art. Exh. cat., Lowell Libson Ltd at Stellan Holm, New York. London, 2015, p. 69, ill. p. 66 (color).