Blake painted four versions of this subject for his patron Thomas Butts and this lucid watercolor is the earliest. The wise virgins at left are elegant, palely luminous, and composed within a single plane, recalling classical low-relief sculpture. In contrast, their foolish companions at right are agitated and characterized by dark tones. The drawing illustrates a parable in Matthew 25:1-13 used by Jesus to warn listeners to be spiritually prepared:
Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were wise, and five were foolish. They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them. But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.
A trumpeting angel flying overhead signifies that the moment of judgment has arrived.
Inscription: Signed with monogram at lower right in ink: "WB inv" Inscribed on verso: "Matt. 25 Ch. v. 9"
Thomas Butts (British); Thomas Butts Jr. (British), sold at the following; Sotheby's, London (British), March 26, 1852, lot 165; Henry George Bohn (British), purchased at the preceding; Benjamin Godfrey Windus (British); Mrs. J. K de Putron, daughter of the preceding, by 1863, sold at the following; Anonymous seller, Christie's, London, March 16, 1912, lot 4; Frank T. Sabin (British), bought at the preceding; Vendor: Frank T. Sabin (British)
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William Michael Rossetti "Annotated Catalogue of Blake's Pictures and Drawings." in Life of WIlliam Blake. Edited by Alexander Gilchrist, vol. 2, 2nd enlarged ed., London, 1880, cat. no. 70, p. 216.
Archibald G. B. Russell Catalogue of Loan Exhibition of Works by William Blake Exh. cat. National Gallery of British Art, October-December, 1913, p. 20 (MMA version mentioned as version two of four; not exhibited).
Joseph Wicksteed Blake's Vision of the Book of Job. 2nd ed., revised and enlarged. 1924, cat. no. 2, p. 124.
Blake Centenary Exhibition. Burlington Fine Arts Club, London, 1927, p. 28 (MMA drawing mentioned as version two of four; not exhibited).
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Edward Fenton "Word Becomes Image." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, n.s. vol. 13, no. 8, New York, April 1955, p. 249, ill.
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Geoffrey Keynes, George Goyder William Blake's Illustrations to the Bible. William Blake Trust, Clairvaux, 1957, cat. no. 130a, p. 38.
Sir Anthony Blunt The Art of William Blake. 1959, p. 73.
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William Blake The Letters of William Blake. Geoffrey Keynes, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1968, p. 117.
G. E. Bentley Blake Records. Oxford, 1969, pp. 571-2.
David Bindman William Blake: Catalogue of the Collection in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Fitzwilliam Museum, W. Heffer and Sons Ltd., 1970, p. 45.
Martin Butlin William Blake Ex. cat., 9 March–21 May. Tate Gallery, 1978, cat. no. 172, pp. 90-91, ill.
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G. E. Bentley Blake Records, Second Edition: Documents (1714-1841) Concerning the Life of William Blake (1757-1827) and his Family; Incorporating "Blake Records" (1969), "Blake Records Supplement" (1988), and Extensive Discoveries since 1988. Yale University Press, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2nd ed. revised and enlarged. New Haven and London, 2004, p. 764.