William Blake, Visionary Rebel

By Stern, Fred | The World and I, October 2009 | Go to article overview

William Blake, Visionary Rebel


Stern, Fred, The World and I


It happens with greater frequency then you might think. The name of an artist practically disappears from public consciousness, then returns many years later with renewed impact and a sure indication of the artist's staying power.

Such was the case with William Blake (1757-1827). Uniquely gifted in many areas, Blake was not only an outstanding painter, but also a consummate printer, engraver, publisher and one of the most eminent poets England ever produced. But he was also an eccentric whose sense of reality was overshadowed by his mystical visions and unconventional religious beliefs which were revealed in his work. As a result the man lived and died in great poverty.

When you look at Blake's paintings and watercolors you'll readily understand why his art was neglected, dismissed or vigorously rejected throughout his life and for decades thereafter. Colors scream with a flame-like quality. His men and women look like creatures from outer space. And his image of God is that of an old man with bristling looks and muscular arms that further emphasize unreality. Today we call this "outsider art." Today Blake's work is praised from every level of the establishment for both its content and its unique quality of execution.

But Blake's world, after all, was 18th Century Britain. In that time and place, the leading painters produced realistic renderings of historical scenes or battle pictures. Other highly successful artists painted what was the most loved of subject matter: rolling country estates with horses the gentry raced or rode to the hunt. William Blake would have none of that, and he paid the price.

With his appeal as a great artist now firmly in place, his originality and creative genius almost universally understood and appreciated, and his compelling story of a talent not recognized or compensated in his lifetime, William Blake's reputation continues to grow. And a major museum is mounting a display of his drawings, watercolors and paintings. The Morgan Library of New York City is drawing on its enormous holdings of Blake's work, a treasury that is unequaled anywhere in the world. The exhibition is built around one of the most prominent books published by Blake, "The Book of Job" (1805-1810). All 21 watercolors produced by Blake to illustrate this book will be on exhibit. There will be Blake drawings for some of John Milton's great poems, "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso," as well. It is the first major show of William Blake in two decades.

An Unlikely Background

There was little hint in William Blake's unexceptional background that he would become a multi-faceted, iconoclastic poetic and artistic genius. He was born into a lower middle class family in London. His father was a fabricator of hosiery and a tradesman.

But early on, indicators of both the boy's talents and his nonconforming nature began to emerge. Although unsophisticated, his parents recognized and tried to fulfill their precocious son's needs. He was home schooled because they felt his temperament and nervous disposition would hinder his progress in a more structured environment. Soon he demonstrated a keen drawing ability. He also experimented with rhyme at the tender age of nine.

At fourteen years of age, his parents apprenticed Blake to a London engraver who was a member of the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal School of Arts. Thus began the young man's entry into the fields of printmaking, printing, and publishing. The engraver sent Blake to Westminster Abbey to draw replicas of 13th and 14th Century tombs. The experience instilled within him a love of the Gothic style, and thereafter much of Blake's work revels in its intricacies.

Blake also studied for a brief period at the Royal Academy but did not accept the theories and teachings of Sir Joshua Reynolds who was a predominant force at that institution. Fortunately for Blake, he had become proficient at producing engravings during his apprenticeship, and had actually created a number of engravings on his own, quite an achievement for so young a person.

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