William Blake (1757–1827) occupies a unique place in the history of Western art. His creativity included both the visual and literary arts. In his lifetime he was best known as an engraver; now he is also recognized for his innovative poetry, printmaking, and painting. Blake's keen perception of the political and social climate found expression throughout his work. His strong sense of independence is evident in the complex mythology that he constructed in response to the age of revolution.
Blake was already recognized as an engraver at age twenty-five, when his first volume of poems appeared. At thirty-three, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, he audaciously claimed that his birth had marked the origin of a "new heaven" in which his own art would exemplify the creativity prefigured by Milton and Michelangelo. By that time, Blake, in one of his most productive periods, had already produced Songs of Innocence and was at work on a series of illuminated books. In 1818 he met John Linnell, a young painter and engraver, through whom a group of young artists became Blake's followers. Calling themselves the Ancients, they helped perpetuate Blake's influence for generations.
The Morgan's Blake collection—one of this country's most distinguished—began with purchases as early as 1899 by Pierpont Morgan. During the tenure of Charles Ryskamp, director from 1969 to 1986, major gifts almost doubled the size of its Blake holdings. In recent years Ryskamp's own gifts of engravings, letters, and related materials have significantly enriched its scholarly resources.
This exhibition is made possible through the generosity of Fay and Geoffrey Elliott.
William Blake (1757–1827)
Joseph of Arimathea Among the Rocks of Albion
[London]: Engraved by W. Blake . . . , 1773
Second state (of two), ca. 1810–20
Inscribed below the image, Engraved by W Blake 1773 from an old Italian Drawing / This is One of the Gothic Artists who Built the Cathedrals in what we call the Dark Ages / Wandering about in sheep skins & goat skins of whom the World was not worthy / such were the Christians / in all Ages / Michael Angelo Pinxit
Joseph of Arimathea––the figure who is supposed to have provided Christ's funeral and perhaps later carried the Holy Grail to England––is the patron saint of gravediggers. His story surely spoke to Blake's interest in early English history and religion. He created this engraving in 1773 while still a sixteen-year-old apprentice to James Basire (1730–1802). This is the reworked state, dating from about 1810, when Blake was in his fifties.
Purchased as the gift of the Thorne Family and Fellows Fund in memory of Mrs. Landon K. Thorne, 1976; PML 77019.9
William Blake was tutored by his mother, given drawing lessons at the age of ten, and at fifteen apprenticed to James Basire, one of the most prominent engravers of the day. Seven years later, when the apprenticeship was complete, Blake was admitted to study at the Royal Academy. Because of this solid instruction, he was admired for his craftsmanship and often identified as "Mr. Blake, the engraver." Throughout his life, he maintained that engraving was a true art form: "Painting is Drawing on Canvas & Engraving is drawing on Copper & Nothing Else." Blake's prints demonstrate his strong commitment to line, developed through Basire and enhanced by his own creativity. Fortunately his engraver's training would support him, though not well, for the remainder of his life. At forty-six, he wrote, "I curse & bless Engraving alternately because it takes so much time & is so untractable, tho capable of such beauty & perfection."