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New Morgan Exhibition to Present the Genius of William Blake
William Blake (1757–1827), Fire, ca. 1805. Pen and black and gray ink, gray wash, and watercolor, over traces of graphite. Gift of Mrs. Landon K. Thorne, 1971; 1971.18

NEW YORK, NY.- 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.

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.”

William Blake
The son of a London haberdasher and a religious dissenter, Blake studied the Bible privately with his family. He was educated at home and well read as an adult. This intellectual curiosity was coupled with a keen perception of the political and social world, finding expression in his artistic independence as well as the complex mythology he constructed in response to the age of revolution in which he lived. This mythology centered around the figure of “Urizen,” an authoritarian, kinglike figure who represents rulers both sacred and profane, with whom other characters representing independence and artistic creativity must interact.

Blake was trained as an engraver. His skill was often applied to reproducing designs of his fellow students and teachers at the Royal Academy. Blake engraved his own works as well, and painted for Academy shows, wrote poetry, and engraved illustrations for books issued by the radical publisher Joseph Johnson. He was also active within the Soho/Covent Garden artistic community. Although Blake explored many artistic disciplines, he continued to work throughout his life in the medium for which he was trained, engraving.

As a result of a dream conversation with his dead brother Robert in 1787, Blake developed a new method of engraving relief plates. By using a special coating for copper plates, he was able to combine reverse script with illustrative details. With this inventive technique, he created Songs of Innocence in 1789 and embarked on a major productive period that saw the creation of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790), Visions of the Daughter of Albion (1793), Continental Prophecies: America (1793), Europe (1794), and the Song of Los (1795). While living in Lambeth in the 1790s––across the river but still within walking distance of the artistic and literary center of London––he created small runs of the illuminated books, which were printed on speculation or for a few patrons.

Exhibition Highlights
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.

Blake’s fame as a poet is seen in his fair copy of ballads known as The Pickering Manuscript, named after its early owner and publisher. Giving voice to Blake’s well-known poem “Auguries of Innocence,” found in the manuscript, is the actor Jeremy Irons, who has also recorded the shorter poem, “Tyger.” These can be heard on a gallery listening station and on the Morgan’s Web site.

Blake supported himself with his engravings, and a selection of his prints— many of which are extremely rare impressions—documents this important aspect of his production. A magnificent example of Blake’s largest print, touched with watercolor by the artist, depicts Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims. With this work the artist hoped for commercial success, something he was unable to secure in his lifetime.

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).

Collection History
The Morgan Library & Museum’s Blake collection––one of this country’s most distinguished––began with purchases as early as 1899 by the institution’s founder, Pierpont Morgan. The exhibition is a tribute to the scholarship and generosity of Charles Ryskamp, director of the Morgan from 1969 to 1986. During his tenure, major gifts almost doubled the size of the Blake collection; and in recent years his gifts of engravings, letters, and related materials have augmented the holdings as a major source for research.

Morgan Library | William Blake | John Milton | Thomas Butts | New Heaven | Royal Academy | Charles Ryskamp |

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