For all his extraordinary artistic vision, William Blake had a strong sense of design, developed during his apprenticeship as an engraver, and honed when he was self-publishing his illuminated books. In this article, I’d like to take a quick tour through some of Blake’s paintings which show the strongest influence from design, rather than just composition. There are many others, but these are among my favourites.
Christ Appearing to His Disciples/Apostles After the Resurrection is one of Blake’s large colour print series from 1795, which refers to the gospel of Luke, chapter 24 verses 36-40:
And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, “Peace be unto you.” But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit. And he said unto them, “Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.” And when he had thus spoken, he shewed them his hands and his feet.
The Blasphemer (c 1800) is, like most of the rest of my examples, taken from series of watercolour paintings made for Thomas Butts. This refers to the Old Testament book of Leviticus, chapter 24 verse 23:
And Moses spake to the children of Israel, that they should bring forth him that had cursed out of the camp, and stone him with stones. And the children of Israel did as the Lord commanded Moses.
The grim background is given in verses 10-16:
And the son of an Israelitish woman, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the children of Israel: and this son of the Israelitish woman and a man of Israel strove together in the camp; and the Israelitish woman’s son blasphemed the name of the Lord, and cursed. And they brought him unto Moses: (and his mother’s name was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan:) and they put him in ward, that the mind of the Lord might be shewed them.
And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, “Bring forth him that hath cursed without the camp; and let all that heard him lay their hands upon his head, and let all the congregation stone him. And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying, Whosoever curseth his God shall bear his sin. And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the Lord, shall be put to death.”
The Death of the Virgin (1803) refers to an apocryphal account of the death of the Virgin Mary, which Rossetti later accompanied with a quotation from the gospel of John, chapter 19 verse 27 (during the crucifixion):
Then saith he to the disciple, “Behold thy mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.
Its rainbow is painted in the correct, Newtonian order, suggesting that it was painted before Blake switched to inverted rainbows in about 1803.
Satan in his Original Glory: ‘Thou wast Perfect till Iniquity was Found in Thee’ (c 1805) refers to Ezekiel, chapter 28 verses 14-15, where the King or Prince of Tyrus is generally taken to mean Satan:
Thou art the anointed cherub that covereth; and I have set thee so: thou wast upon the holy mountain of God; thou hast walked up and down in the midst of the stones of fire. Thou wast perfect in thy ways from the day that thou wast created, till iniquity was found in thee.
David Delivered out of Many Waters ‘He Rode upon the Cherubim’ (c 1805) refers to Psalm 18, verses 4, 10, and 16, in which David calls to God for salvation from his enemies:
The sorrows of death compassed me, and the floods of ungodly men made me afraid.
And he rode upon a cherub, and did fly: yea, he did fly upon the wings of the wind.
He sent from above, he took me, he drew me out of many waters.
The Crucifixion: ‘Behold Thy Mother’ (c 1805) is a traditional and popular scene from the Passion, and refers to the gospel of John, chapter 19 verses 26-27:
When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, “Woman, behold thy son!” Then saith he to the disciple, “Behold thy mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.
The Entombment (c 1805) refers to the gospel of Luke, chapter 23 verses 53 and 55:
And he took it [the body of Jesus] down, and wrapped it in linen, and laid it in a sepulchre that was hewn in stone, wherein never man before was laid.
And the women also, which came with him from Galilee, followed after, and beheld the sepulchre, and how his body was laid.
The Angels hovering over the body of Christ in the Sepulchre; Christ in the sepulchre, guarded by angels (c 1805) elaborates the gospel accounts of Christ’s body in the sepulchre with reference to the description of the tabernacle in Exodus, chapter 25 verse 20:
And the cherubims shall stretch forth their wings on high, covering the mercy seat with their wings, and their faces shall look one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubims be.
This may have been in the light of Hebrews, chapter 9 verse 5:
And over it the cherubims of glory shadowing the mercyseat; of which we cannot now speak particularly.
Job Confessing his Presumption to God who Answers from the Whirlwind (c 1803-5) is an early example of Blake’s ‘divine whirlwind’, and refers to Job, chapter 40 verses 3-6 (and I add 7 too):
Then Job answered the Lord, and said, “Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer thee? I will lay mine hand upon my mouth. Once have I spoken; but I will not answer: yea, twice; but I will proceed no further.”
Then answered the Lord unto Job out of the whirlwind, and said, “Gird up thy loins now like a man: I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me.”
The Four and Twenty Elders Casting their Crowns before the Divine Throne (c 1803–5) refers to the book of Revelation, chapter 4 verses 2-11:
And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald. And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold.
And out of the throne proceeded lightnings and thunderings and voices: and there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God. And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle.
And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come. And when those beasts give glory and honour and thanks to him that sat on the throne, who liveth for ever and ever, the four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying, “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.”
This appears to have been painted after about 1803, as its rainbow is reversed.
Jacob’s Ladder, or Jacob’s Dream (1799-1806) shows Blake’s innovative use of a spiral staircase to heaven, and refers to Genesis, chapter 28 verses 10-19:
And Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran. And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep.
And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, “I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; and thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.”
And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. And he called the name of that place Bethel: but the name of that city was called Luz at the first.
Satan Watching the Endearments of Adam and Eve (1808) is from Blake’s slightly later illustrations to Milton’s Paradise Lost, and refers to book 4, lines 325-535. Blake painted several slight variations of this work, each based on the same strong design.
My final selection is not a traditional watercolour, but one of Blake’s late glue tempera paintings, Count Ugolino and His Sons in Prison (c 1826). This refers to Dante’s Inferno, canto 33 verses 43-75. Blake had also planned to incorporate a similar painting in his illustrations to Dante, which he was working on at the time of his death. In that series, the image exists only as a pencil sketch.
Blake’s artistic design had limited influence over other painters during the nineteenth century, but was a much greater influence on twentieth century visual art.
Butlin, M (1981) The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake, 2 vols, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 02550 7.