William Blake
Biography of the English Watercolourist, Illustrator, Printmaker.

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Newton, Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York (1795).

SEE: THE ART OF WILLIAM BLAKE.

William Blake (1757-1827)

Although now considered to be a true pioneer and visionary, the talented poet and artist William Blake went largely unrecognised in his own lifetime. It took years before historians and critics 'discovered' the importance of his work on the development of printmaking and fine art painting. Although Blake rarely travelled further than a day's walk outside of London during his lifetime, his paintings and poetry demonstrate a diverse imagination and awareness of the world around him. His work has been categorized as part of Romanticism, and his most notable paintings, mainly on symbolic religious subjects, include The Angel Gabriel Appearing to Zacharias, 1799; The Angel of the Revelation, c.1803 (both at the Metropolitian Musemn of Art, New York) and his set of etchings for the Book of Job.


The Angel Of The Revelation,
Metropolitan Museum, NY (1803)

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Biography

Born in London - his father ran a hosiery shop - he was taught to read and write by his mother, and then worked in the family business. His family were religious and the bible would remain a source of inspiration for Blake throughout his life. At an early age, he started engraving copies of drawings by the great Old Masters of the Renaissance, like Raphael, Michelangelo and Albrecht Durer. At the age of 14, his family recognised his talent for drawing and sent him to an engraver to be apprenticed. His apprenticeship lasted 7 years and included time spent copying images of Gothic architecture from churches of London. After his apprenticeship, he became a student at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in London.

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In 1782, he met Catherine Boucher, who was to become his wife. At the time, Blake was reeling from a refusal of a marriage proposal by another woman. He told his story to Catherine, whereupon Blake asked her ‘Do you pity me?’ She said she did, and so he replied: 'In that case I love you'. They were married the same year. She was illiterate, so he taught her to read and write. He also trained her as an engraver and throughout his career she was an invaluable help in his work.

Blake’s reputation as an important figure in the history of art rests largely on a set of 21 copperplates he executed to illustrate the Old Testament Book of Job. He employed the traditional technique of line-engraving in unconventional ways. He used visual aids and text in the margins to emphasis points; he incorporated symbolic images from his personal mythology and quoted from other parts of the bible. His interpretation is personal, complex and multi-layered and his meanings continue to provide a point of debate even today.

Although he worked for other artists, he was always slow to collect payment or credit. A poor businessman, he preferred to choose his own subjects, rather than relying on commissions. In 1788, he illustrated the book Original Stories from Real Life by feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. He was an early defender of women's rights to choose whom they married and a woman's right to self-fulfillment. He claimed to have religious visions since a child, which fired his imagination for spiritual works. Having admitted this to a friend, he was persuaded to paint one of these visions, which he did so in his work The Ghost of a Flea, 1819.

In 1826, Blake received a commission to illustrate Dante's Inferno, but he only completed a handful of watercolours and etchings before his death the following year. Despite this, his watercolours are seen as some of his greatest works.

Like Dante, Blake placed little value on material wealth, and even as he worked feverishly on his last illustrations, he is said to spent the last few shillings he possessed on a pencil to continue sketching. On the day of his death, he drew one last portrait of his wife (now lost) and died a few hours later. Unfortunately the exact location of his grave has been lost.

Catherine believed that her husband's spirit remained with her. She continued to sell copies of his illuminated works and paintings, but would not agree to a sale before 'consulting Mr Blake'. On the day she died, she cheerfully called out to her husband, as if they were in the same room, that she was coming to him.

In 1949, Australia established the Blake Prize for Religious Art in his honour, and in 1957 a memorial was erected in Westminster Abbey, in memory of him and his wife. His etchings, drawings and writings went on to influence several famous painters within the Expressionism movement, as well as other writers and modern songwriters like Van Morrison, U2 and Mike Westbrook.

For more exponents of Romanticism, see: Romantic Artists.


 

William Blake: His Art and Influences

In the realm of imaginative painting, William Blake (1757-1827) stands quite alone, and to find any real parallel to this extraordinary man of genius one must go back to the illuminators and sculptors of the twelfth century. Born out of time, with no living tradition of imaginative painting to guide him, his work is full of oddities and inconsistencies, but through them the intense flame of his genius burns fitfully, now almost extinguished, now blazing with an unbearable brilliance.

Blake began his career as an engraver, being apprenticed to James Basire. He also had some training at Parr's drawing school and the Royal Academy Schools. It is useless to look for sources of his inspiration, but both these phases of training left their mark on the technical side of his work. His training as an engraver must have helped to concentrate his attention on pure line as a means of expression, and throughout his career his work is conceived as linear pattern, while a certain type of figure which sometimes appears in his pictures probably owes its origin to the training of the Royal Academy Schools. See also English Figurative Painting (1700-1900).

His Approach to Art

Blake was a poet, visionary, and mystic, and all his pictures are poetically conceived, but that is not to say that they are literary in any depreciatory sense. Even his illustrations to his own poems are not simple translations of the written word into pictures. Rather the poems and the pictures are each counterparts in their proper medium of the image in his mind. These mental images had for Blake an almost objective reality, and he did not regard them as poetic fancies but as actual visions of a reality veiled from the sensual eye. In his own belief he lived in a world peopled with spirits visible to the eye of the imagination, which had a reality at least as great as that of the material world around him. In fact it may be said that for him the ordinary positions of reality and imagination were reversed, and that the world of the imagination was to him more vivid and actual than the world of the senses. How far his visions were hallucinatory is unimportant in considering his art, and each one will come to a different conclusion on this point qccording to his own attitude to the unseen world. What is important is Blake's own implicit belief in the reality of his visions, and it is this which gives the peculiar force and intensity to his work.

It also accounts to some extent for its medieval quality and for his insistence both in practice and words on the importance of outline. Believing, as he did, in the absolute reality of forms, effects of light and shade, atmosphere, and all that goes to the making of the ordinary retinal picture were to him mere hindrances and veils between him and reality, and accordingly he rejected all the technical improvements from the fifteenth century onwards which were aimed at a more accurate rendering of the retinal vision. With outline alone he could record the silhouette of form, and to this he added only just so much light and shade as would give the appearance of solid bulk to the forms represented. He had thus by a purely logical process and without any direct imitation returned to the outlook of the Gothic and pre-Gothic artists.

His affinity with medieval artists, however, went further than a similarity in the treatment of form. When, unable to find a publisher for his first book of poems, "Songs of Innocence", he determined to print and publish them himself, he combined text, illustration, and decoration in a manner curiously suggestive of a medieval manuscript. At the end of the eighteenth century the Gothic revival was just beginning, and it is at least possible that there may have been some direct imitation here, but it would seem extremely unlikely that Blake had much knowledge of twelfth-century Gothic art, to which his finest designs are most nearly related.

In Blake's work the gift of linear pattern which had been so marked a feature of English medieval work again emerges after lying dormant for nearly four hundred years. Artists like George Romney (1734-1802) showed some feeling for line, but Blake extracts from its rhythmic cadences a strange spiritual expressiveness now exultant, now brooding, now terrible. The variety of his rhythms is extraordinary and his art has a richness of spiritual content which can be compared to Michelangelo alone.

Michelangelo's Influence on Blake's Painting

In so far as there were any strong outside influences in Blake's work at all they were probably derived from Michelangelo, but he had no first-hand knowledge of Michelangelo's work, and these influences would have been transmitted through inferior engravings, which stressed his anatomical exaggerations and omitted that sweetness in his strength. Consequently there occur in some of Blake's paintings and engravings some of the faults of Michelangelo's imitators in the way of grotesque and exaggerated anatomies. But Blake was no imitator, and his creative genius was as personal and original as Michelangelo's own. Yet every creative artist relies to some extent on his predecessors in the development of symbolic types, and as Michelangelo himself drew upon the resources of Donatello and Masaccio so Blake drew upon Michelangelo in his search for a system of visual symbolism.

As an academic draughtsman Blake is, of course, altogether inferior to him, but the real point of similarity to Michelangelo does not lie in his deliberate borrowings which were often absurd, but in the informing spirit of his work which was naturally akin to his. It has been remarked before now that in some of the finest northern work of the twelfth century there is a foreshadowing of Michelangelo's spirit without his academic accomplishment, and here is perhaps the origin of the similarity between the art of Blake and that of the twelfth century. In Michelangelo, in the twelfth-century sculptors and illuminators, and in Blake, a like type of imagination was struggling for expression, and Blake, without the tradition of Florentine art behind him, and without Michelangelo's draughtsmanship, naturally evolved a means of expression in some ways almost identical with that of the twelfth-century primitives. The force of his drawing, the emphasis of his linear pattern, the swaying rhythms of his figures all have their prototypes in some of the Illuminated Manuscripts of the Medieval England and Ireland.

Blake's Contribution to English Art

Considered from any point of view Blake is one of the most interesting and extraordinary figures in the whole history of English painting, but this reversion to a typically English manner of expression gives him an historical interest which is often overlooked. The love of linear pattern in English art is usually considered to be derived in the first place from the Irish illuminators, and, if this is so, the fact that Blake, though London born, had Irish blood in his veins, may be significant.

Blake's genius was altogether too strange a thing to have much influence on his contemporaries, but Edward Calvert (1799-1883), the wood-engraver, and to a lesser extent Samuel Palmer, were followers. Indirectly his influence has been more considerable. He was the first man to react deliberately against the influence of Joshua Reynolds, and so might in a sense be considered, if not the father, then the grandfather of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In more recent imaginative painters and illustrators, traces of his inspiration constantly appear, and in his insistence on pattern and emphasis on the abstract elements of design, even at the cost of distortion, he was a forerunner of much modern art.

Works by William Blake can be seen in the best art museums in Europe.

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