In 1794, William Blake had perfected his colour illuminated printing process, in publishing a series of illuminated books. By 1795, he was ready to use it to produce a limited run of twelve large colour paintings. These formed the first major collection of paintings which he offered for sale: one mark of the importance which he accorded them was his use of the term fresco to describe their medium.
In fact, they were not made using a technique resembling fresco painting in any way. Although there remains some debate as to exactly what he did, the process was probably:
- Develop the work using sketches, etc., until a design was ready to print. In some cases, these large prints were derived from earlier work, in others (such as Pity), he made fresh sketches.
- Draw the finished work onto a sheet of thick millboard, ready to colour.
- Produce a wet watercolour, using pigment, binder, and a honey additive, on the millboard.
- Print approximately three copies from the millboard ‘plate’.
- Touch up each print by hand using pen and ink and watercolour to produce the finished painting.
Although it is possible that he may have used oil-based inks or paints on some, Blake’s lifelong aversion to the use of oil paints suggests that he used water-based media throughout, and analyses support that. These ‘large prints’ (also known as his Lambeth Prints, as that is where they were made) are therefore watercolour monoprints which have then been individually retouched and further painted. Given the variation between the different ‘pulls’ or impressions made of each, they are less prints and more print-based paintings.
Neither were they illustrations in the way that the images within his illuminated books may be. They were supplied as individual sheets for mounting and framing as paintings. We do not know whether Blake intended them to be viewed in pairs, groups, or as a complete set of twelve, and there is uncertainty as to his own title for several. Indeed, some of them appear to have been mistitled following Blake’s death, and that has led to confusion as to what they actually depict. I will show them in the order used in Butlin’s catalogue raisonné, although we have no idea whether that was intended by Blake.
Elohim Creating Adam (Butlin 289)
Elohim Creating Adam (1795, c 1805) is the only surviving impression of this work, which appears to have been listed by Blake as God Creating Adam. It is based on the book of Genesis chapter 2 verse 7:
And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
Blake shows this fairly literally, with Adam’s body still being formed out of the earth, and a large worm (not a serpent) is coiled around his left leg. The worm is also a symbol of mortality.
Blake’s mythology for Elohim, the Hebrew word for God and judge, is different from the ‘standard’ Christian concept of God, and distinct from Urizen too. I am not convinced that Blake intended to show his Elohim or Urizen here, and therefore the work may better be titled simply as God Creating Adam.
Satan Exulting over Eve (Butlin 292)
Satan Exulting over Eve (c 1795) is thought to be the first impression of this work, which has its roots in the story of the Fall in Genesis, and in Milton’s Paradise Lost. In book 5 (lines 28-92), Milton writes a more detailed account of the Fall, in which Eve has a dream of Satan giving her the fateful apple, sweeping her up into the cloud before she sinks down and falls asleep.
Blake shows Satan flying low over the sleeping body of Eve; he carries a shield and spear. The serpent has already coiled itself around Eve’s legs and body, and there is an apple by her right hand.
God Judging Adam (Butlin 296)
God Judging Adam (c 1795, c 1804-05) is the third impression, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Blake’s original title was probably God speaking to Adam, as the traditional accounts (in Genesis and in paintings) of the judgement itself include both Adam and Eve, and they wear fig leaves to cover their nudity.
Adam is here transformed to be the literal image of God, who in turn may appear to resemble Blake’s Urizen, as in The Ancient of Days. Additional support comes from the fact that God is shown in the sun chariot, a role normally associated with Urizen. However, unlike that image of Urizen, God is here fully clothed, and Blake does not appear to have used the name Urizen in the title of this work. This leaves the reading open to use Genesis or Milton, God or Urizen, without any compelling evidence on which to make choices.
Lamech and his Two Wives (Butlin 297)
Lamech and his Two Wives (1795) is the first impression of this depiction of an obscure story from the book of Genesis, chapter 4, verses 23-4, which Blake titled simply Lamech. A descendant of Cain (who killed his brother Abel), Lamech here tells his two wives how he has just killed a man for wounding him, and killed a boy for merely hurting him. One of the bodies is shown at the right, and the fearful wives embrace one another as Lamech seeks protection from the consequences of those killings.
This seems a strange story to have included here: far better-known, and more popular in paintings, is that of Abel and Cain.
Naomi Entreating Ruth and Orpah to Return to the Land of Moab (Butlin 299)
Naomi Entreating Ruth and Orpah to Return to the Land of Moab (c 1795) is another first impression, showing a slightly more familiar Biblical narrative from the book of Ruth, chapter 1, verses 11-17. Naomi, seen at the left in a black robe, and her two daughters-in-law have become widowed. She decides to leave the land of Moab to return to her kin in Judah. Ruth, who is embracing her, remains devoted to Naomi, and returns with her, but Orpah, walking off to the right, decides to stay. Interestingly, because of her place in the lineage of David and so that of Jesus, Blake gives Naomi a halo, but not Ruth.
Nebuchadnezzar (Butlin 301)
Nebuchadnezzar (1795–c 1805) is the first impression of this justly famous image based on the book of Daniel, chapter 4, verses 31-33. The great and proud king of Babylon was warned in a dream that his excessive pride would lead to madness, and so it does, resulting in him living in the wild like an animal. Blake depicts this in one of his most vivid images of a man in transition to becoming a beast, his nails turning into claws, and his arms into forelegs.
Newton (Butlin 306)
Newton (1795–c 1805), the first impression, is another of Blake’s most famous images. It shows the brilliant mathematician and physicist completely absorbed in a geometrical problem, oblivious to the wondrous rock on which he sits. Its standard interpretation is that Newton’s scientific rationalism was inadequate without imagination and the creativity of the artist – a negative view of the man who is still considered a towering genius.
Pity (Butlin 310)
Pity (c 1795) is most probably the first impression. Although Blake did not supply the quotation or reference, it is generally agreed to be a literal representation of Macbeth’s lines from the opening of Act 1 Scene 7 of Shakespeare’s tragedy of Macbeth:
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind. …
I have discussed this in detail in the previous article in this series.
The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy (Butlin 316 as ‘Hecate’)
The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy (c 1795) has proved the most enigmatic of all the dozen paintings to read. For a long time, it was believed to show Hecate, which was probably first proposed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. This was largely on the basis of the three figures, which were thought to form the distinctive triple form of Hecate. If that were the case, it would be the only such representation in which two of the three figures faced inwards, which would contradict their symbolism. I agree with Robin Hamlyn that this cannot be Hecate.
The next most likely candidate is that the woman seen at the front of the figures is from Blake’s own mythology, Enitharmon: partner, twin, and inspiration to Los (and mother of Orc). She represents spiritual beauty, and was modelled on Blake’s wife, Catherine (who may have been the model for her figure here too). In her ‘night of joy’, she establishes her Woman’s World, with a false religion of chastity and vengeance – which was Blake’s view of the 1800 year history of the ‘official’ Christian church.
She is accompanied by symbols of night, including the owl and bat. She also plays the role of Eve, which may explain the head of a snake peering out towards Enitharmon here. The donkey eating thistles underlines Blake’s rejection of the ‘official’ church, and the two figures behind Enitharmon face in and bow their heads in guilt. The book on which Enitharmon’s left hand rests would then be Urizen’s ‘Book of brass’, in which his repressive laws are laid down.
The House of Death (Butlin 320)
The House of Death (1795–c 1805), sometimes known as The Lazar House (a lazar is someone afflicted with a disease), is the first impression. It is a rather grim image taken from Milton’s Paradise Lost book 11, lines 477-493. There, the Archangel Michael shows Adam the afflictions that man will suffer in the form of disease, now that he has eaten the Forbidden Fruit. So rather than the bodies being dead, they are in the throes of suffering the diseases which have been unleashed following the Fall.
The similarity of the figure, who should (by Milton) be the Archangel Michael, to Blake’s images of Urizen, is clear, and may refer back to his illuminated books, and to the French Revolution.
The Good and Evil Angels (Butlin 323)
The Good and Evil Angels (1795–c 1805) is the second impression. At its left is a figure closely resembling the Satan of Satan Exulting over Eve, particularly in its grimace. It is also shackled at the left ankle, although that shackle doesn’t appear to be attached to anything. Like Fuseli, Blake believed in Lavater’s ideas of physiognomy, and constructs the two angels in accordance with its principles.
Christ Appearing to the Apostles After the Resurrection (Butlin 326)
Christ Appearing to His Disciples After the Resurrection (c 1795) is the first impression, and may have been known to Blake as Christ Appearing. It shows the account of Christ’s appearance to the apostles (or disciples) following his resurrection, as given in the gospel of Luke chapter 24, verses 36-40.
Christ, showing the stigmata of his crucifixion on the palms of his hands, his left foot, and his left lower chest, stands looking up to heaven. His followers all kneel, and pray in thanks for his resurrection and their salvation.
Many of the images in this collection of a dozen large painted monoprints are among the finest in his works. They contain powerful designs, unique products of his imagination, and several are deeply provocative. Based mainly on well-known and popular sources, most have religious themes, and few seem dependent on understanding Blake’s own mythology. This should have made them accessible and appreciated.
Instead, they appear to have sold very slowly, even to his existing patrons, and to have been criticised by his peers. Thankfully, today we can enjoy them as they are, some of the greatest works of art of the period.
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Blunt, A (1959) The Art of William Blake, Oxford UP.
Butlin, M (1981) The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake, 2 vols, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 02550 7.
Damon, S Foster (2013) A Blake Dictionary, the Ideas and Symbols of William Blake, updated edn., Dartmouth College Press. ISBN 978 1 61168 443 8.
Hamlyn R & Phillips M (2000) William Blake, Tate Publishing. ISBN 978 1 8543 7314 4.
Townsend, J (ed)(2003) William Blake, the Painter at Work, Tate Publishing. ISBN 978 1 8543 7468 4.
Vaughan, William (1999) William Blake, British Artists, Tate Publishing. ISBN 978 1 84976 190 1.