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.
Geoffrey Chaucer (?–1400)
The Prologue and Characters of Chaucer's Pilgrims . . . intended to illustrate a particular design of Mr. William Blake which is Engraved by Himself.
[London: G. Smeeton], M.DCCC.XII, .
This slight work was an effort to build a market for the Canterbury Pilgrims engraving. It presents the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales and the descriptions of each of the twenty-nine pilgrims, along with contemporary translations. "The Editor" offered readers the opportunity to compare "the heads, as represented by Mr. Blake . . . with the lineaments drawn by Chaucer, and . . . the merit of the Artist will be generally acknowledged." The goal was to bring the print "to the notice of the Encouragers of Art." At least four states of the engraving were produced from about 1810 to 1823. Nevertheless, there were few buyers.