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William Blake

English Poet, Painter, and Printmaker

Movement: Romanticism

Born: November 28, 1757 - London, United Kingdom

Died: August 12, 1827 - Westminster, United Kingdom

William Blake Timeline

Quotes

"If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite."
William Blake
"The imagination is not a state: it is the human existence itself"
William Blake
"I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create."
William Blake
"Art is the tree of life. Science is the tree of death."
William Blake
"No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings."
William Blake
"Great things are done when men and mountains meet."
William Blake
"The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction."
William Blake
"The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom."
William Blake
"The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity... and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself."
William Blake
"In the universe, there are things that are known, and things that are unknown, and in between, there are doors."
William Blake
"The person who does not believe in miracles surely makes it certain that he or she will never take part in one."
William Blake
"The great and golden rule of art, as well as of life, is this: that the more distinct, sharp, and wirey the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art; and the less keen and sharp, the greater is the evidence of weak imitation, plagiarism, and bungling".
William Blake
"This world of imagination is the world of eternity; it is the divine bosom into which we shall all go after the death of the vegetated body. This world of imagination is infinite & eternal, whereas the world of generation, or vegetation, is finite & temporal."
William Blake

"To see the world in a grain of sand, and to see heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hands, and eternity in an hour."

Synopsis

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.

Key Ideas

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.

Most Important Art

William Blake Famous Art

Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789)

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.
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William Blake Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Childhood

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.

Early Training

The drawing academy turned out to be too expensive, and Blake was forced to quit after four years. It was intended that he would become apprentice to a master engraver but - so the story goes - when his father took him to meet his prospective employer William Ryland, the young Blake refused, declaring that "it looks as if he will live to be hanged!", a prophecy which, strangely enough, came true years later. In the end, William was apprenticed for five years to James Basire, an engraver to the Society of Antiquaries. Blake came to value his training with Basire, which had a great impact on his work: especially his various on-site drawings of Gothic monuments. In his spare time, the young engraver studied medieval and Renaissance art, especially Raphael, Michelangelo, and Dürer, who in Blake's view - as paraphrased by art historian Elizabeth E. Barker - had produced a "timeless, 'Gothic' art, infused with Christian spirituality and created with poetic genius".

When he was 21, Blake left his apprenticeship and enrolled at the Royal Academy. His time there was brief, however, reputedly because he questioned the aesthetic doctrines of the president Sir Joshua Reynolds, describing the Academy as a 'cramped imaginative environment'. Blake began earning a living as an commercial engraver for various publications, including popular books such as Don Quixote. At this time, in 1799, according to the poet and Blake scholar Kathleen Raine, Blake wrote to his friend George Cumberland - one of the founders of the National Gallery - "that his 'Genius or Angel' was guiding his inspiration to the fulfillment of the 'purpose for which alone I live, which is [...] to renew the lost Art of the Greeks'". Such a statement already makes clear not only Blake's admiration for Ancient Greek art, but also his sense of the interconnectedness of art and spirituality. Importantly, however, the spiritual guides who he claimed governed his artistic vision never steered him into the confines of organized religion: he never attended church.

In August 1782, at the age of 25, Blake met, courted and married Catherine Boucher, the daughter of a local grocer. Partly because the couple had no children, Blake devoted much time to teaching Catherine how to read, write, and draw, while Catherine helped her husband with his designs. In 1783, Blake published his first volume of poetry, Poetical Sketches; though sales were poor, the Blakes' finances were stable due to William's increasing popularity as an engraver. With his father's inheritance, Blake opened a shop with his friend James Parker.

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William Blake Biography Continues

In 1788, he used his method of "illuminated printing" for the first time in There is No Natural Religion, a small pamphlet containing his illustrated poetic and religious credo. Around this time, Blake's brother Robert died, probably of tuberculosis, after a long and grueling illness. His death had a profound impact on Blake, who began believing that Robert's spirit lived within him, inspiring him through visions and apparitions.

Mature Period

Portrait of William Blake, of debatable authorship. Collection of Robert N. Essick.
Portrait of William Blake, of debatable authorship. Collection of Robert N. Essick.

In 1795, Blake began a series known as the Large Colour Prints, depicting subjects from the Bible, Milton, and Shakespeare. Though Blake was never an isolated figure - he socialized widely, and attached himself to various cultural circles in London, through friends such as Henry Fuseli and James Barry - Raine notes that he was not an "easy man socially", being "proud, argumentative and violently opposed to current fashion, in his art and his philosophic and religious ideas alike". Certainly, Blake was radical in his political and religious views, and had no interest in conforming to social type. A kind of Platonist, he believed that the scientific view of the universe propagated by the Enlightenment was the "enemy of life", though, as the journalist Peter Blake adds, he was also an "artist with public ambitions", not yet the solitary hermit of his later years.

The same year he began work on the Large Colour Prints, Blake was introduced to Thomas Butts, who would become his main patron for several years, commissioning a large number of works. Loyal and supportive, Butts left Blake to pursue his private visions and impulses, "promising", as Raine puts it, "only to buy from him whatever he should paint." During this time Blake wrote: "I think I foresee better things than I have ever seen. My work pleases my employer, and I have an order for fifty small pictures at one guinea each, which is something better than mere copying after another artist."

<i>Portrait of William Blake</i> by Thomas Phillips (1807)
Portrait of William Blake by Thomas Phillips (1807)

The poet William Haley also became Blake's patron for a while, hiring him to undertake a commission in 1800, but Blake quickly became disillusioned with his assigned task, and, based at Haley's country estate at Felpham, sank into a depression, finding it impossible to "sacrifice his integrity as an artist for profit". The relationship between the two poets ended in acrimony, Haley describing Blake as his "spiritual enemy", and from around this time on, Blake found it increasingly hard to make a living, with engraving work drying up despite his connections with the London art world, and his ongoing commissions from Butts. Unlike his friends Fuseli and Barry, who held positions at the Royal Academy, Blake was not a member of the art 'establishment', and was never given the opportunity to undertake large-scale public works. In 1809, he lamented his lack of public commissions in England, writing in "The Invention of a Portable Fresco", a catalogue for his only public exhibition, that creating portable frescoes might be a good way to convince "visionless" patrons of the quality of his work.

Compounding his troubles, Blake's hallucinations and reveries increasingly led to him being perceived as insane: perhaps with some justification, as he is known to have publicly claimed that he revised Michelangelo's and Dürer's work on the artists' advice after communicating with them in visions. Coupled with his proud conduct and strongly-held beliefs - never humble about his craft, he once wrote to Butts that "The works I have done for you are equal to Carrache or Rafael" - Blake's mysticism drew him into ever more solitary patterns of existence. Nonetheless, he continued to generate a prodigious body of work, inspired by a deep faith in the power of imagination, and by his attentiveness to what he called "miracles". Blake once stated: "I know that this world is a world of imagination & vision. I see everything I paint in this world, but everybody does not see alike". Throughout his mature period, he often claimed to be encouraged in his work by Archangels, or to be in communication with historical and mythical figures such as the Virgin Mary.

For Kathleen Raine, "the bitterest irony in the story of Blake's failures and humiliations is that he was never unknown; on the contrary, he was in the heart of London's art world, and knew all the most famous artists and engravers of his day. And yet he failed where they succeeded, ousted by men of inferior talents and passed over by lifelong friends."

Later Work

Blake lived in Soho, the neighborhood of his birth, for almost his entire life, very rarely travelling. But despite this lack of worldliness, he made himself a highly cultured man, acquiring a large collection of classical art prints, for example. After years of poverty, he was forced to sell his print collection, but in 1818 Blake's financial fortunes turned once again when he met John Linnell, the man who would become his second great patron. Linnell provided Blake with financial stability in the later years of his life through his commissions and purchases, and also introduced Blake to a group of artists known as The Ancients, or The Shoreham Ancients, who had been brought together by their collective admiration for Blake's work. Like Blake, this group spurned 'modern' approaches to art and aesthetics, and held a broadly Platonic view of the universe. Towards the end of his life, then, Blake suddenly found himself a revered 'teacher' and leader. Indeed, the most talented of the Ancients, Samuel Palmer, is generally considered an inheritor of Blake's vision and technique.

Around 1820, Blake moved into a house near the Strand, spending his days engraving in a small bedroom. In 1821, at the age of 65, he embarked on a commission from Linnell to illustrate The Book of Job. Writing of Blake around this time, Samuel Palmer described Blake as "moving apart, in a sphere above the attraction of worldly honors". "He did not accept genius", Palmer added, "but confer it. He ennobled poverty, and by his conversation and the influence of his genius, made two small rooms in Fountain Court more attractive than the threshold of princes." The diarist Henry Crabb Robinson, another friend from this period, wrote in a letter of 1826 that anyone who met Blake saw in him as "at once the Maker, the Inventor; one of the few in any age: a fitting companion of Dante". Robinson described Blake as embodying "energy" itself, shedding an atmosphere "full of the ideal" all around him, despite his age and relative penury.

Portrait of William Blake by John Linnell (c.1820)
Portrait of William Blake by John Linnell (c.1820)

William Blake died in August 1827, at the age of 70. At the time of his death he was working on a set of illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy which are now considered amongst his best work. It is said that on the day of his death, as he worked frantically on these images, he proclaimed to his wife: "Stay! Keep as you are! You have ever been an angel to me: I will draw you!". A few hours later he passed away: the drawings are now lost.

Art critic Richard Holmes claims that when Blake died, "he was already a forgotten man", with sales for his engravings and painted poems scarcely reaching 20 copies over 30 years. Yet, for George Richmond, an artist associated with The Ancients, Blake "died like a saint...singing of the things he saw in heaven".


Legacy

William Blake is generally considered one of the great artistic polymaths, not just one of the finest poets in the English language, but also one of Britain's most revolutionary visual artists: the critic Jonathan Jones describes him as "far and away the greatest artist Britain has ever produced". Blake is also remembered for the intricate and unique philosophical and religious schemas which sustained his work: whereas Romantic contemporaries such as J.M.W. Turner and John Constable drew inspiration from the landscape, Blake turned inwards, to an imaginative world based on the Bible and other religious and literary texts, taking his viewers on what Elizabeth E. Barker calls "journeys of the mind." Kathleen Raine explains that to the artist himself, Blake's works represented "'portions of eternity' seen in imaginative vision". She compares him to Renaissance masters such as Michelangelo, Dürer, Dante, and Fra Angelico (Blake's favorite artist) in his ability to create all-enveloping imaginative realms seemingly ex nihilo, offering us "fragments of worlds whose bounds extend beyond any of those portions their work embodied".

It is all the more ironic, then, that Blake was disregarded by artistic and literary society during his lifetime. Since it was common knowledge that he claimed to work from visions, he was generally categorized as eccentric or insane; only when the art critic Alexander Gilchrist, born a year after Blake's death, took to the concerted study of his art and legacy - resulting in the publication of The Life of William Blake in 1863 - was the full scope and significance of Blake's visions realised. Gilchrist described Blake's hallucinations as encoding a "special faculty" of the imagination, his avowed connection to the spiritual world evidence not of madness but of a form of "mysticism". Gilchrist's writing created a new context for the study of Blake's practice, just as Pre-Raphaelite artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti were responding afresh to the clarion call of Blake's spiritual intensity.

More generally, Blake's visionary and mystical works exerted an enormous influence on the later development of Romanticism in art, and, subsequently, on Pre-Raphaelitism, Symbolism, and even modernism. Blake's influence on literature has also been profound: Walt Whitman, W. B. Yeats, and Allen Ginsberg are amongst the poets profoundly inspired by him, while Blakean visions also had an afterlife in the abstract and psychedelic pop lyrics of the sixties, especially in Bob Dylan's post-beat dream sequences. In the present day, Blake's legacy extends all over high and popular culture, including art, literature, music, and film. It is believed, for example, that the illustrations for Lord of Rings and other movies on mythological themes were inspired by his imagery.

Art critic Alexander Gilchrist claims that Blake made his work for "children and angels; himself 'a divine child,' whose playthings were sun, moon, and stars, the heavens and the earth". In proclaiming the values of creative freedom, imaginative play, religious tolerance, and all forms of love, Blake created work of an enduring and profoundly positive value.

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Influenced by Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
William Blake
Interactive chart with William Blake's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
View Influences Chart

Artists

John Milton
Sandro Botticelli
Leonardo da VinciLeonardo da Vinci
MichelangeloMichelangelo
Fra AngelicoFra Angelico

Personal Contacts

John Flaxman
Henry FuseliHenry Fuseli
James Barry

Movements

RenaissanceRenaissance
RomanticismRomanticism

Influences on Artist
William Blake
William Blake
Years Worked: 1771 - 1827
Influenced by Artist

Artists

John Everett MillaisJohn Everett Millais
Dante Gabriel RossettiDante Gabriel Rossetti
G. F. Watts
John William Waterhouse

Personal Contacts

Samuel Palmer
George Richmond
Edward Calvert

Movements

The Ancients
The Pre-RaphaelitesThe Pre-Raphaelites
RomanticismRomanticism
SymbolismSymbolism
SurrealismSurrealism

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Sarah Frances Dias

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Greg Thomas

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Sarah Frances Dias
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Greg Thomas
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Useful Resources on William Blake

Books

Websites

Articles

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The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
Eternity's Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William Blake Recomended resource

By Leo Damrosch

William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books Recomended resource

By William Blake

The Prophetic Books of William Blake: Jerusalem

By Eric Robert Dalrymple Maclagan

William Blake Recomended resource

By Kathleen Raine

More Interesting Books about William Blake
How William Blake keeps our eye on The Tyger

By Jonathan Jones
The Guardian
November 18, 2014

Saving Blake Recomended resource

By Richard Holmes
The Guardian
November 29, 2004

William Blake Recomended resource

By Elizabeth E. Barker
MET Museum

A (Self?) Portrait of William Blake

By Robert N. Essick
Winter 2005

More Interesting Articles about William Blake
William Blake Documentary (2005) Recomended resource

By Academy Media (UK)

Lecture: William Blake On Religion Recomended resource

By Neville Goddard who talks about the mystical William Blake and his spiritual revelation about the Imagination, States, Vision, Manifesting.

in pop culture

Red Dragon

By Thomas Harris

Taming the Tyger (album and song)

By Joni Mitchell

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