Though William Blake is held today as one of the premier poets of the pre-Romantic era, his contributions as a painter is often overlooked. Like his poetry, his paintings and etchings reflect his deeply held religious beliefs, as well as the many questions he had not only about faith but the nature of existence. Reflecting a sensibility that was unusual by the standards of the day, Blake’s choice of subject matter for his paintings ran from traditional biblical scenes to gothic depictions of ghouls and creatures from Hell sent to tempt and torment humanity.
His illuminated printing also helped create significant depth in his poetry, adding to the impact of the words, and often reflected the same biblical concerns and reverences that Blake held for his Christian beliefs. Combining the gothic with a proto-Romantic sensibility, William Blake created art that not only reflected his religious beliefs, but also borrowed from biblical, literary, mystical, and personal inspirations to create unique art that remains as compelling as his poetry and speaks volumes of the creative genius of the man.
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Though many in the modern day consider William Blake one of the seminal poets of the early Romantic period, Blake he did not support himself as a poet during his life but got by on patronage and commissions for engraving and painting. His projects were most often literary and religious in nature and included the Book of Job and other scenes from the Bible; Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims; Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.
His eccentricity and imaginative intensity, which seemed like madness to more than a few of his contemporaries, came from Blake’s childhood fill by such events as beholding God’s face pressed against his window, seeing angels among the haystacks, and being visited by the Old Testament prophet, Ezekiel (Abrams, 2000, p. 36). When his brother died in 1887, Blake claimed that he saw his “released spirit ascend heavenwards, clapping its hand for joy,” and soon after, this spirit would visit him with a critical revelation of the method of “Illuminated Printing” that he would use in his major poetical works.
His obscurity as a poet was due in part to the difficulty of his work after the mid-1790s but chiefly to the very limited issue of his books, a consequence of the painstaking and time-consuming process of his “Illuminated Printing. ” Blake’s illuminated printing allowed him to not only publish his poetry but also create art to compliment it.
The books included many etchings, most often colored in dramatic fashion, that depicted many of Blake’s religious and social concerns. He prophesized, included biblical satire and concerns, and addressed timely subjects such as the suffering he observed and the rampant state of religious hypocrisy in London. As Blake’s mythical poetic character Los said, speaking for all imaginative artists, “I must Create a System or be enslaved by another Man’s” (Abrams, 2000, p. 27).
In Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Blake reflects the increasing shift of Western society towards a more secular, independent mode of thinking. To Blake, the simple joy to be had in venturing the countryside to hear the songs of the birds is more valuable than learning science from books, or religion from the scriptures, and in his work Blake suggests that children are inherently and naturally good, and only through the systems of man are they corrupted and robbed of joy.
This new faith of Blake in the natural goodness of humans contradicts the concept of the fall of Man, espousing that the malaise of modern culture is a mode of psychic disintegration and of resultant alienation from oneself, one’s world, and one’s fellow human beings (Abrams, 2000, p. 39). To Blake, like later poets of the Romantic age, the only hope of recovery for humanity rested in reintegration into the social and natural worlds, as well as adherence to the incorruptible word of God.
In Songs of Innocence, Blake combines many of his social and religious views into an etching accompanying his poem, “The Little Black Boy. ” In some copies, Blake tinted the black boy’s skin as light as the English boy’s, while in others he colored them differently; while the heavenly scene that Blake depicts shows both boys sheltered by a tree and welcomed by Christ, it also puts the black boy outside of the inner circle formed by the curve of Christ’s body and the praying English boy.
Blake depicted the racism of London by showing the little black boy as not a part of the configuration of the prayer, but rather a witness to it, stroking the hair of the English boy who has no regard for him (Abrams, 2000, p. 45). By depicting the innocent scene with Christ as he does, Blake is showing how Christian society often excludes those that do not fit the right social criteria. This unique aspect of Blake’s religiousness was one of the main precursors to the spirit of freedom and equality that would come to dominate the Romantic era.
Blake hoped to reach a wider audience with a private exhibition of his illustrations in 1809, but his adventurous originality, coupled with his cantankerous and combative personality, left him largely ignored, except by a few harsh critics. At the time of his death in 1827, he was impoverished and almost entirely unknown except to a small group of younger painters, and only decades after his life did interest begin to grow in his literary and artistic contributions.
The overwhelming theme in the works of Blake is religion. During his life, Blake declared that “all he knew was in the Bible” and that “The Old and New Testaments are the Great Code of Art. ” This is an exaggeration of the truth that all his religious and prophetic art deals with some aspects of the overall biblical plot of the creation and the Fall, the history of the generations of humanity in the fallen world, redemption, and the promise of a recovery of Eden and of a New Jerusalem (Abrams, 2000, p. 37).
Though Blake spent considerable time on his illuminated printing, his continuous experimentation with form and artistic expression led to a series of large color prints of massive size and iconic designs. Though no commission or public exhibition is recorded, and the exact intensions of the artist and the works’ creation remain unknown, the prints continue to reflect Blake’s literary and biblical concerns, featuring twelve designs with subjects drawn from the Bible, Shakespeare, Milton, and Enlightenment subjects such as Newton (Barker, 2004).
Once again, Blake treads the fine line between religious faith and faith in humanity to understand existence and create magnificent works of beauty. However, unlike many of the artists that would follow him, Blake’s art displayed many of his preferences for the medieval and gothic art of the centuries prior. Blake was not alone in his interest in gothic culture, and a great gothic revival swept through England, Europe, and North America towards the end of the eighteenth century.
Often reflected best in the dramatic spires of architectural creations of the time, Blake saw these architectural and sculptural accomplishments as the perfect embodiment of his artistic ideal, where spirituality and aesthetic values were inseparable (Tate Britain, 2008). To Blake, the spiritual attributes of the gothic revival reflected the height of creative expression, and his art included many characteristics of the gothic style. In his engraving, Joseph of Arimathea among the Rocks of Albion helps express some of his Christian gothic ideals.
The picture depicted the legendary figure that supposedly brought Christianity, as well as art to Blake, to ancient Britain, and Joseph is depicted as a melancholic artist reflective of Blake’s ideals (Tate Britain, 2008). Though Blake described his technique as “fresco,” it was more of a form of monotype which used oil and tempera paints mixed with chalks, painted onto a flat surface such as a copperplate or piece of millboard, and he simply pulled prints by pressing a sheet of paper against the damp paint, often finishing designs in ink and watercolor to make them each unique (Barker, 2004).
Blake’s talent for painting religious icons caught the attention and won the patronage of Thomas Butts, who would become one of Blake’s biggest supporters. Using the Bible as he key source of inspiration, between 1799 and 1805, Blake produced one-hundred thirty-five watercolors and paintings for Butts; Blake used the Bible not merely as a historical, spiritual, and literary guide, but also the fundamental source of all human knowledge, even of the future (Tate Britain, 2008).
In the religious paintings Blake produced for Butts, he employed the tempera technique believing it to be representative of the spiritual art of the medieval times that inspired the gothic revival. Using his own symbolism in many of the religious scenes he depicts, Blake incorporates many of the Enlightenment ideals into his scenes. In one depiction of Christ, Blake depicts him as holding a compass, as meant to signify the predomination of reason, and shown in his other works, most famously in his portrayal of Isaac Newton (Tate Britain, 2008).
Blake’s gothic style was also incorporated in his highly stylized religious subjects like The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun, which come directly from the Book of Revelation. Along with his depictions of Chaucer’s pilgrims and Dante’s themes of Catholicism, Blake continued to depict religion in his work until his death. Though William Blake is considered a precursor to the humanism and natural passion of the Romantic era, his religious beliefs dominated much of his work and his life.
Unlike many religious artists, Blake retained his own unique views of religion, and did not shy away from depicting its flaws and misinterpretations. However, Blake continued to see the goodness of religion, as well as humanity, and did his best to combine the elements of the real world with that of the spiritual world. And, while Blake is still considered more of a poet than for his achievements in painting and etching, the complete picture of the artist is not complete without knowing his accomplishments in each art form, and understanding the importance that religion played in inspiring their creation.
REFERENCES Abrams, M. H. (2000). William Blake: 1757-1827. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th Ed. Vol. 1. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. Barker, E. E. (2004, October). William Blake (1757–1827). Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved April 22, 2008, from http://www. metmuseum. org/toah/hd/blke/hd_blke. htm Tate Britain. (2008). William Blake. Retrieved April 22, 2008, from http://www. tate. org. uk/britain/exhibitions/blake/blakethemes2. htm
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