English Poet, Painter, and Printmaker
London, United Kingdom
Westminster, United Kingdom
Summary of William Blake
Though he is perhaps still better-known as a poet than an artist, in many ways William Blake's life and work provide the template for our contemporary understanding of what a modern artist is and does. Overlooked by his peers, and sidelined by the academic institutions of his day, his work was championed by a small, zealous group of supporters. His lack of commercial success meant that Blake lived his life in relative poverty, a life in thrall to a highly individual, sometimes iconoclastic, imaginative vision. Through his prints, paintings, and poems, Blake constructed a mythical universe of an intricacy and depth to match Dante's Divine Comedy, but which, liked Dante's, bore the imprint of contemporary culture and politics. When Blake died, in a small house in London in 1827, he was poor and somewhat anonymous; today, we can recognize him as a prototype for the avant-garde artists of the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whose creative spirit stands at odds with the prevailing mood of their culture.
- Blake was perhaps the quintessential Romantic artist. Like his peers in the world of Romantic literature - Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelly - Blake stressed the primacy of individual imagination and inspiration to the creative process, rejecting the Neoclassical emphasis on formal precision which had defined much 18th-century painting and poetry. Above all else, Blake scorned the contemporary culture of Enlightenment and industrialization, which stood for a mechanization and intellectual reductivism which he deplored. Blake felt that imaginative insight was the only way to cast off the veil thrown over reality by rational thought, claiming that "If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite."
- Blake is unique amongst the artists of his day, and rare amongst artists of any era, in his integration of writing and painting into a single creative process, and in his use of innovative production techniques to combine image and text in single compositions. Celebrated for his visual output, Blake is also recognized as one of the most radical poets of the early Romantic period, combining a highly wrought, Miltonic style with grand, Gothic themes. Moreover, through original techniques such as his "illuminated printing" Blake was able to adapt his craft to meet the demands of his creativity.
- Blake's spiritual vision was central to his creativity, and was crucially and uniquely informed by a complex, imaginative pantheon of his own making, populated by deities such as Urizen, Los, Enitharmion, and Orc. Grand allegorical narratives illustrated with Blake's own designs, were played out in this universe, which might seem to have existed in a space apart from reality. However, in his epic poem sequences, Blake imagined the fate of the human world, in the era of the French and American Revolutions, as hinging on these sequences, determined by the battles between reason and imagination, lust and piety, order and revolution, which his protagonists represented.
Biography of William Blake
William Blake was born in Soho, London, into a respectable working-class family. His father James sold stockings and gloves for a living, while his mother, Catherine Hermitage, looked after the couple's seven children, two of whom died in infancy. William, a strong-willed boy and an evident prodigy from a young age, often absconded from school to wander through the streets of London, or spent his time copying drawings of Greek antiquities; moreover, inspired by the work of Raphael and Michelangelo, he also developed an early fascination with poetry. Though his childhood was peaceful and pleasant, William began experiencing visions at the age of eight, claiming to see angels on trees, or wings that looked like stars. Though troubled by his stories, Blake's parents supported his artistic ambitions, enrolling him when he was ten at the Henry Par drawing academy, then a well-regarded preparatory school for young artists.
Important Art by William Blake
Songs of Innocence and Experience, a collection of poems written and illustrated by Blake, demonstrates his equal mastery of poetry and art. Blake printed the collection himself, using an innovative technique which he called 'illuminated printing: first, printing plates were produced by adding text and image - back-to-front, and simultaneously - to copper sheets, using an ink impervious to the nitric acid which was then used to erode the spaces between the lines. After an initial printing, detail was added to individual editions of the book using watercolors. Prone as he was to visions, Blake claimed that this method had been suggested to him by the spirit of his dead brother, Robert. Songs of Innocence was initially published on its own in 1789. Its partner-work, Songs of Experience, followed in 1794 in the wake of the French Revolution, the more worldly and troubling themes of this second volume reflecting Blake's increasing engagement with the politically turbulent era.
The cover of Songs of Innocence and Experience includes the subtitle "The Two Contrary States of the Human Soul," a reference to the opposing essences which Blake took to animate the universe, depicted throughout the collection through a range of contrasting images and tropes. Beneath this caption are a man and woman, presumably Adam and Eve, whose bodies mirror each other, but are connected by Adam's leg, another indication of the dualities at work in the book. The use of vibrant color, and the intensity and fluidity of Blake's lines, creates a sense of drama complemented by the figures' anguished appearance. At the same time, the dance-like orientation of their bodies creates an almost childlike sense of play, which jars with the lofty nature of the project.
Unappreciated during his lifetime, Blake's illuminated books are now ranked amongst the greatest achievements of Romantic art. They indicate his artisanal approach to his craft - influential on the 'cottage industries' of subsequent printer-poets such as William Morris - and his hatred of the printing press and mechanization in general. The question underlying this collection is how a benevolent God could allow space for both good and evil - or rather, innocence and experience - in the universe, these two necessary and opposing forces summed up by the contrasting images of the lamb and "the tyger", the subjects of the two best-known poems in the sequence. The influence of Blake's "tyger", in particular, its eyes "burning bright,/ In the forests of the night", echoes down through literary and artistic history, seeping into popular culture in a myriad of ways.
The Ancient of Days, one of Blake's most recognizable works, portrays a bearded, godlike figure kneeling on a flaming disk, measuring out a dark void with a golden compass. This figure is Urizen, a fictional deity invented by Blake who forms parts of the artist's complex mythology, embodying the spirit of reason and law: two concepts with a very vexed position in Blake's moral universe. Urizen features as a character in several of Blake's illuminated long poems, including Europe: A Prophecy, for which this illustration was created. There, and here, Urizen is a repressive force, impeding the positive power of imagination. This piece can thus be read in light of a famous line from another of Blake's long works, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: "The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction."
In many ways, Blake is the exemplar for our modern conception of the Romantic artist. He prized imagination above all else, describing it not as "a state" but as the essence of "human existence itself." Thus, as The Ancient of Days implies, he disdained attempts to rationally curtail or control the power of imagination. This is also clear from the annotated version of Sir Joshua Reynold's Discourses on Art (1769-91) which he produced around this time. Blake was highly critical of Reynolds, an older and more established artist who, as President of the Royal Academy of Arts, embodied what Blake saw as the formulaic and stultifying ideals of the academy; his teeming marginalia to Reynold's treatise serves in some ways as a conscious affront to these ideals. But if The Ancient of Days also encapsulates the rational spirit Blake was wary of, the undeniable majesty of the figure also reflects his belief in human beings' visionary power, just as his famous and beautiful line from Auguries of Innocence compels the reader "To see a World in a Grain of Sand/ And a Heaven in a Wild Flower/ Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/ And Eternity in an hour".
With his oppositional critiques of the art establishment, Blake set the stage for artists later in the nineteenth century, like the French painters Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet, who deliberately set about to challenge academic paradigms. The Ancient of Days sums up something of the spirit Blake was opposing, but also of the spirit he was endorsing. It is also known to have been one of his favorite images, an example of his early work, but also one of his last works, as he painted a copy of it in bed shortly before his death.
This piece, like Songs of Innocence and Experience, was made using Blake's illuminated printing technique. It seems to portray two cherubim, one of whom holds a baby, on white horses in a darkened sky, jumping over a prostrated female figure. The image is generally understood as an interpretation of a passage from Shakespeare's Macbeth: "And pity, like a naked new-born babe,/ Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubin, hors'd/ Upon the sightless couriers of the air,/ Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye".
Blake's use of blues and greens, contrasting with the whites of the figures, grants the work a nocturnal, dreamlike quality. Indeed, some scholars have questioned the extent to which the piece draws on Shakespeare's verse, suggesting instead that it might depict figures from Blake's own imaginative pantheon, as its visionary intensity seems to imply. The figure turning away from the viewer might be the god Urizen, for example, the face leaning down from the horse that of Los, an oppositional force to Urizen but also his prophet on earth, who has taken on the female form of Pity - often embodied in the character of his partner, Enitharmion - to enact Urizen's will. The woman below might be Eve, fulfilling the biblical prophecy that "in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children" by generating the miniaturized male figure cradled in Los's arms. By this reading, Pity represents the fall of man, in particular the moment when he becomes aware of his sexuality, and his subjugation to God.
Through mythological and literary-inspired works such as Pity, Blake would exert an immense influence on the course of post-Romantic art, including on the Pre-Raphaelites, who often drew on literary and Shakespearean themes, as in John Everett Millais's Ophelia (1851) and John William Waterhouse's Miranda (1916). The hallucinatory quality of works such as Pity, meanwhile, along with their apparent deep allegorical significance, would have a profound effect on movements such as Symbolism and Surrealism.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on William Blake
- Eternity's Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William BlakeOur PickBy Leo Damrosch
- William Blake: The Complete Illuminated BooksOur PickBy William Blake
- The Prophetic Books of William Blake: JerusalemBy Eric Robert Dalrymple Maclagan
- William BlakeOur PickBy Kathleen Raine
- William Blake: The Critical HeritageBy G.E. Bentley Jnr.
- Life of William BlakeBy Alexander Gilchrist
- How William Blake keeps our eye on The TygerBy Jonathan Jones / The Guardian / November 18, 2014
- Saving BlakeOur PickBy Richard Holmes / The Guardian / November 29, 2004
- William BlakeOur PickBy Elizabeth E. Barker / MET Museum
- A (Self?) Portrait of William BlakeBy Robert N. Essick / Winter 2005
- William Blake: The Art of a Lunatic?Our PickBy Peter Blake / April 26, 2009 / The Independent
- Various articles on BlakeOur PickFull list of articles written by Blake experts for the Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly