This Parisian retrospective of William Blake gives us an opportunity to have a closer look into the enigmatic and mystic universe of this uncommon English artist of the end of the XVIIIth and the beginning of the XIXth century.
Canal Academie had the privilege to make a private visit of the exhibition guided by Mrs. Catherine de Bourgoing, assistant director of the Musée de la Vie romantique in Paris who was also in charge of the very fine and richely documented catalogue of the exhibition.
Who is William Blake (1757-1827) ?
A painter – an engraver – a poet – a mystic ?
Blake’s apprenticeship and first vision – first poems
At the age of twelve, Blake began to write his first poems. At fifteen, he gets acquainted with the Antique mythology and the Middle-Age
1772-1780 Apprentice to the engraver James Basire. Blake spent three years drawing royal tombs in Westminter which initiated him with the taste for the « Gothic Art ». He is also an avid reader (the Bible, the Koran, Shakespeare, Milton…) and collects prints of the Renaissance.
Since his early days Blake writes poetry in the Elizabethan manner and experiments visions. He draws and prints them as well as historical or mysterious scenes. First known print : Joseph of Arimathea among the Rocks of Albion after Michelangelo.
1779 Blake spent one year at the Royal Academy School learning anatomy and historical painting.
Blake as a copy engraver
After his apprenticeship ended Blake found work as an engraver, and he mostly earned his living as an engraver working for different publishers with a reputation as an efficient and exacting print-maker.
- 1782 Marriage with Catherine Boucher, illiterate daughter of a market gardener, a self taught artist and constant helper of Blake ;
- 1783 Meets Swiss born Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) with whom he shared the same attraction for Italian Renaissance and supernatural and fantastic subjects.
In the same year his poems Poetical Sketches are printed.
- 1788 Etches Head of a Damned Soul in Dante’s Inferno, after Fuseli, for Lavater’s essay on Physiognomy.
IMAGE Head of a Damned Soul in Dante’s Inferno,
Relief etching and illuminated books
- 1787 Thirty-years old Blake tries his first relief etchings (etching his poems illustrated with his drawings without using typography). Inspired by a vision in a dream of his brother Robert who had recently died, dictating him a new technique of relief etching.
- 1791 The radical publisher Joseph Johnson provides Blake with much work over the years and encourages him both as a poet and as an artist in his own right. Blake shares his liberal ideas in favour for the French Revolution.
1789-1793 First illuminated books : The Songs of Innocence, a children’s book of songs, embellished in the manner of medieval manuscripts, followed by The Songs of Experience, 1793. French Terror turns public opinion in Britain against the Revolution.
The illuminated Prophetic Books
The book of Thel, 1789 ; The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 1790-93 ; The Visions of the Daughters of Albion, 1793 ; America a Prophecy, 1793 ; Europe a Prophecy, 1794… Blake starts a series of prophetic allegorical books which show that history since creation is a long fight between liberty and the tyranny of reason. Mankind will be liberated from the fall of Adam’s malediction through revolution and poetry.
Blake is a very modern man, very radical. He is dreaming of a world where people would be equal, where there would be no slavery, sexual liberation – a new age in a kind.
That’s why Blake was so appealing in the 60ties and 70ties to people who know his art in the 20th century.
The large colour Prints
- 1795 – First production of the Large Colour Prints : Newton, Pity (inspired by Shakespeare’s Ophelia), Hecate, printed without any text with a monotype technique. They are among his most famous ones. Blake tries to reinvent the Renaissance fresco and calls it « the portable fresco».
- 1800 Act of Union : creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
- 1800-1803 The Blakes stay in Sussex with the poet and patron William Hayley who commissions eighteen Heads of poets for his library (Milton, Dante, Chaucer, Voltaire).
- 1804 Starts his two longest illuminated poems Milton, a Poem (1802) and Jerusalem (1820).
- 1805 Illustrations to Robert Blair’s poem, The Grave : watercolour Death of the Strong Wicked Man, a long meditative poem on death which became very popular at the beginning of the XIXth century. It was acquainted by the Louvre Museum in 2006.
- 1799-1805 Thomas Butts’ commission for illustrations to the Bible. Butts is the main patron for twenty years.
During his last twenty years, Blake gained recognition.
He painted one of his masterpieces The Pilgrimage to Canterbury after G. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Young landscape painter John Linnell became his patron.
Blake etches illustrations to The Book of Job « in the manner of Dürer » for Linnel. Followed watercolour illustrations to the Bible. In 1822 The Royal Academy grants 25 £ to Blake who is said « to be in great distress ». 1824-1827 Linnell’s commission of illustrations to The Divine Comedy after Dante Alighieri is left unfinished with 102 watercolours, 7 prints and drawings.
12 August 1827 Blake dies in his two room apartment in London.
1863 Alexander Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake, Pictor Ignotus establishes his fame.
(Biographical notes by Catherine de Bourgoing)
For further information :
- Petit Palais : The retrospective on William Blake takes place from April 2nd till June 28th, 2009.
- Catalog of the retrospective :