William Blake, “Melancholy,” from John Milton’s Il
Penseroso, watercolor, over traces of black chalk.
Purchased with the assistance of the Fellows with the special support of Mrs. Landon K. Thorne and Mr. Paul
Mellon, 1949; 1949.4:7.
William Blake, “Behemoth and Leviathan,” from Illustrations for the Book of Job, ca. 1805–10, no 15 in the set of 21 illustrations, pen and black ink, gray wash, and watercolor, over traces of graphite. Purchased by Pierpont Morgan, 1903; 2001.77.
William Blake, The Pickering Manuscript, ca. 1802– 04, autograph manuscript fair copy of ten poems, page 13. Gift of Mrs. Landon K. Thorne, 1971; MA 2879.
Visionary and nonconformist William Blake (1757–1827) is a singular
figure in the history of Western art and literature: a poet, painter, and printmaker. Ambitiously creative,
Blake had an abiding interest in theology and philosophy, which, during the age of revolution, inspired
thoroughly original and personal investigations into the state of man and his soul. In his lifetime Blake was
best known as an engraver; he was later recognized for his innovations across many other disciplines.
from September 11, 2009, to January 3, 2010
In the Morgan’s first exhibition devoted to Blake in two decades, former director Charles Ryskamp and curators Anna Lou Ashby and Cara Denison have assembled many of Blake’s most spectacular watercolors, prints, and illuminated books of poetry to dramatically underscore his genius and enduring influence. William Blake’s World: “A New Heaven Is Begun”—the subtitle a quote from Blake referring to the significance of his date of birth—is on view from September 11, 2009, to January 3, 2010.
The show includes more than 100 works and among the many highlights are two major series of watercolors, rarely displayed in their entirety. The twenty-one watercolors for Blake’s seminal illustrations for the Book of Job—considered one of his greatest works and revealing his personal engagement with biblical texts—were created about 1805–10. Also on view are twelve drawings illustrating John Milton’s poems L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, executed about 1816–20. Both series were undertaken for Blake’s principal patron, Thomas Butts.
“The name William Blake means different things to different people,” said William M. Griswold, director of the Morgan. “Engraver, painter, poet, visionary—all apply to Blake, and all are accurate. The Morgan is fortunate to have one of the most important collections of Blake material in the world, and this exhibition provides an opportunity to see his extraordinary creativity across many disciplines.”
In addition to the superlative watercolor series—twenty-one illustrations to the Book of Job and twelve designs illustrating Milton’s L’Allegro and Il Penseroso—other important drawings are on display, including Fire (ca. 1805), which addresses the subject of war. The more fully expressed Continental Prophecies, a series of three illuminated books, further showcase Blake’s talents as a visual artist and his passionate interest in politics.
Among Blake’s crowning achievements as a visual artist and poet are his illuminated books, such as Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul (ca. 1794). These works, which also showcase his exceptional technical skills, reflect medieval manuscript illumination and the interrelationship between word and image. Also on view is the only dated copy of Blake’s dramatic The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Shedding light on the artistic milieu surrounding Blake are a number of works by friends and contemporaries, including drawings by younger artists such as John Linnell (1792–1882) and members of a group that assembled around Blake and called themselves the Ancients. Also represented are works by painters such as Samuel Palmer (1805–1881) and Henry Fuseli (1741–1825).