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.
Edward Young (1683–1765)
The Complaint, and the Consolation; or Night Thoughts.
London: Printed by R. Noble for R. Edwards, 1797.
Designed and engraved by William Blake; hand colored, possibly by Blake and his wife
One of the two or three works for which Blake was most generally known during his lifetime, Night Thoughts is by one of the widely admired Graveyard poets. Blake painted 537 watercolors for the poem, of which he engraved forty-three for this first, and only, volume. The volume was so expensive to produce that no more were published. It is open to Night the Second on Time, Death, and Friendship, where Time, reaching high, tries to divert the arrow of Death from the two friends. On the left, the soul struggles upward for immortality while confined to the earth by a chain. Mrs. Blake was her husband's assistant for some illuminated works, but for this large project he may have set a pattern for professional colorists to follow.