William Blake (British, 1757–1827)
Copy Y, ca. 1825
Relief etchings printed in orange-brown ink, heightened with watercolor and shell gold, with hand-painted decorative borders
6 1/8 x 5 1/2 in. (15.7 x 14.1 cm)
Rogers Fund, 1917 (17.10.42)
"The Tyger," arguably Blake's best-known verse, which questions a God who could create such a brutal beast, comes from the Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Blake originally produced this small, richly illustrated collection of short lyric verses as two separate books, Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794), then combined them into a single volume (1794). Although its small, simple, colorful format recalls a children's book, its message is sophisticated and complex. Innocence and Experience contrast opposite states of human existence, before and after the Fall. The pastoral poems in Innocence express religious faith and acceptance, and exhibit fine detail and flowing lines; the bardic verses in Experience, by contrast, convey disillusionment and anger, and employ bolder outlines. Published during the height of the Terror, the French Revolution left its mark on the second book.
Blake produced only twenty-four copies of the combined volume; this page comes from one of the last, prepared for the painter and printmaker Edward Calvert (17991883) in about 1825. Its deep, saturated hues and distinctive ornamental borders (found on only one other copy) contrast with the lighter, paler colors of editions printed three decades earlier. The book remained in Calvert's family until the late nineteenth century; in 1917, it became the first work purchased for the Metropolitan Museum's new Department of Prints by its distinguished first curator, William M. Ivins, Jr.