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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

William Blake (1757–1827)

William Blake (1757–1827), one of the greatest poets in the English language, also ranks among the most original visual artists of the Romantic era. Born in London in 1757 into a working-class family with strong nonconformist religious beliefs, Blake first studied art as a boy, at the drawing academy of Henry Pars. He served a five-year apprenticeship with the commercial engraver James Basire before entering the Royal Academy Schools as an engraver at the age of twenty-two. This conventional training was tempered by private study of medieval and Renaissance art; as revealed by his early designs for Edward Young’s Night Thoughts (Nature revolves, but Man advances), Blake sought to emulate the example of artists such as Raphael, Michelangelo, and Dürer in producing timeless, “Gothic” art, infused with Christian spirituality and created with poetic genius.

In 1782, Blake married Catherine Boucher (1762–1831), an impoverished grocer’s daughter who would become his studio assistant. Blake now threw his energies into developing his career as an engraver, opening a short-lived print shop with a fellow Basire apprentice (James Parker) in 1784, before striking out on his own (Job, a Historical Engraving). The great advance in Blake’s printmaking occurred in 1787, following the untimely death, probably from tuberculosis, of the artist’s beloved younger brother Robert, who had been living with William and Catherine since 1784. Blake reported discovering his wholly original method of “relief etching”—which creates a single, raised printing surface for both text and image—in a vision of Robert soon after his death. Relief etching allowed Blake to control all aspects of a book’s production: he composed the verses, designed the illustrations (preparing word and image almost simultaneously on the same copper printing plate), printed the plates, colored each sheet by hand (where necessary), and bound the pages together in covers. The resulting “illuminated books” were written in a range of forms—prophecies, emblems, pastoral verses, biblical satire, and children’s books—and addressed various timely subjects—poverty, child exploitation, racial inequality, tyranny, religious hypocrisy. Not surprisingly, these works rank among Blake’s most celebrated achievements (17.10.42; The Ancient of Days; Los, his Spectre; and Enitharmon before a Druid Temple).

Blake’s technical experiments of the 1790s culminated in a series of large color prints notable for their massive size and iconic designs. Unaccompanied by any text, they comprise his most ambitious work as a visual artist. No commission or public exhibition is recorded, and the intended program of the group remains uncertain: of the twelve known designs, many of the subjects—drawn from the Bible, Shakespeare (58.603), Milton, and other sources (Newton)—function as pairs.

Blake described his technique as “fresco.” It appears to be a form of monotype: using oil and tempera paints mixed with chalks, Blake painted the design onto a flat surface (a copperplate or piece of millboard), from which he pulled the prints simply by pressing a sheet of paper against the damp paint. He finished the designs in ink and watercolor, making each—rare—impression unique.

For Blake, the Bible was the greatest work of poetry ever written, and comprised the basis of true art, as opposed to the false, pagan ideal of classicism. He found a sympathetic patron in Thomas Butts (1757–1845), a prosperous Swedenborgian (a member of the Protestant sect founded by the eighteenth-century Swedish scientist, philosopher, theologian, and visionary Emanuel Swedenborg). Butts amassed a small fortune as a clerk in the office of the Muster Master General, and became Blake’s most loyal patron and closest friend. During the decade 1799–1809, Butts commissioned from Blake a series of illustrations to the Bible that included about fifty tempera paintings (51.30.1) and more than eighty watercolors (14.81.2). These focus on Old Testament prefigurations of Christ, the life of Christ, and apocalyptic subjects from the Book of Revelation, although the series’ exact program and its intended display remain unclear.

For the rest of his life, Blake continued to develop his art on an inward-looking, imaginative trajectory. Whereas notable contemporaries such as J. M. W. Turner and John Constable found the subjects of their art in the landscape, Blake sought his (primarily figural) subjects in journeys of the mind. (Indeed, he never traveled outside of Britain and, aside from a brief period on the southern coast of England—where he worked for the poet William Hayley in Felpham from 1800 to 1803—spent his entire life in London.) In addition to the Bible and his own writings, Blake drew on other texts—most notably, Dante (Beatrice addressing Dante from the Car)—and found a seemingly inexhaustible source of inspiration in his own fertile mind (The Ghost of a Flea).