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)
Satan, ca. 1790
Etching and engraving, only state
Inscribed below in pen and ink, H. Fuseli R. A. Pi Satan W. Blake sculp.
This hideous head of a man howling in torment is also known as "Head of a Damned Soul in Dante's Inferno." Impressions of the print are very rare—only five known proofs of a single state are extant—and the general lack of lettering on known examples suggests that the print was never properly published.
Blake likely executed this large-scale print ca. 1790 as an experiment to entertain his friend Henry Fuseli. This copy once belonged to the great Blake scholar Sir Geoffrey Keynes (1887–1982), who gave it to his friend Charles Ryskamp.
Gift of Charles Ryskamp in memory of Sir Geoffrey Keynes; 1982.98
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."