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William Blake and his works. Today’s post is dedicated to one of the English artists who made the history of Romanticism in art and poetry at the end of the eighteenth century: William Blake.

I recently visited the exhibition dedicated to his works at Tate Britain in London and for the first time I saw live his almost surreal works that struck me for their originality and spirituality.

William Blake is known for making works related to his religious faith and existential problems. Many of his works are considered to be a response to his religious obsessions, which have tormented him throughout his life. And in fact he believed strongly in distinguishing between good and evil and in being a devout Christian at the same time. In reality, his was a personal and surreal vision of Christianity, often not accepted by his contemporaries. 

William Blake and his works. Education

Blake was born here in London in the mid-18th century from a family of shopkeepers in Soho who encouraged him to follow his passions from an early age. He attended a drawing school up to 14 years and then began an apprenticeship as an engraver in one of the most famous English engraver families in history, that of James Basire. 

The engraving technique involves copying an image by cutting fine lines on a metal plate so that this image can be printed and reproduced many times. And Blake loves the precision needed for this job.

Due to the fact that his works are so different from those of his contemporaries, many believe he was an artist not educated in the classical canons of art. It’s actually not like that. In fact, Blake consciously distanced himself from the beginning of his career as an artist from the conventional choices of the art of that period. He wants to create a unique and personal style. 

For example, it is said that Maestro Basire sent him out of the studio as a boy to go and draw the architecture of the city of London from life only because the other apprentices didn’t want him around. Instead, it was discovered over time that this style exercise was important for Blake who loved to draw and thus spend his time. 

William Blake at the Royal Academy of Arts in London

After 7 years of apprenticeship as an engraver, William Blake enrolled in the Royal Academy of Arts. The experience in the Academy towards the end of the 18th century is one that really changes an artist. The fashion models in this period are Greek and Roman sculpture. And the characteristics to be developed in one’s works: order and perfection. 

But all this is very far from the interests of Blake who instead wishes to create his own vision of art much closer to the Gothic than to the classical. He often finds himself criticizing his teachers who are too busy with personal career interests. But the only exception is Henry Fuseli who shares with him the idea of ​​creating works that are linked to the supernatural and the spiritual. 

The engraving technique. Relief etching

Blake as a true artist-genius of the period tries to innovate art also from a technical point of view not only from an ideological point of view. So in 1788 he invented a new form of engraving which is called “relief etching”. This allows him to print in color and to combine text and images. To this day Blake’s exact method remains a mystery. However, it is known that he used it often, especially since he began to have his own publishing business as a printer. 

Blake uses this technique to create a number of visionary works, books in particular. In these works the main themes are the moral and political ones of the time, therefore the slave trade, the social and cultural revolution and sexual freedom. Within these works Blake uses symbols and signs with precise meanings which unfortunately were neither understood nor appreciated at the time. 

William Blake and his works

William Blake and his works. Blake is also a poet and writer, an ability that combined with that of making engravings, drawings and watercolors allows him to tell his vision of society and the disgust he feels towards the social injustices of the period. 

Blake’s works often have references to the Bible, Shakespeare and the poetry of Milton. This is because many of his watercolor series, for example, were made on commission. Blake worked this way most of his life. He was free to create what he wanted without too many limits. And at the same time he could support himself financially. 

One of his most important patrons was Thomas Butt, a state official who supported him for years, eventually owning a collection of nearly 200 of Blake’s works. 

Another strong supporter was the poet William Hayley who even welcomed him into his home in Sussex, but with whom the friendship completely broke down due to Blake’s quarrel with a soldier which took him to court. On this occasion Hayley defended him but relations have since broken off. All this leads him to a less happy period of his life as an artist.

The 1809 exhibition and the return

With his most important exhibition of 1809 Blake wants to explain his point of view to the English art world and thus writes the catalogue, which however turns out to be a real disaster. His works are not accepted and even ridiculed. So he decides not to exhibit for many years. 

Blake is a visionary. His images are so full of symbols and his themes are totally related to Romanticism. He prefers creativity to reason, freedom to repression, maintaining one’s individuality to conforming to the fashion of the period. The human figures in his works are often represented with unreal expressions, muscular bodies and in complex positions. 

After a few years in the shadows Blake returns to exhibit and create great masterpieces in the last ten years of his life. This is thanks to his friendship with a young artist John Linnell, for whom he created two series of watercolors that will go down in history: Jerusalem and the Divine Comedy. And it was precisely the fact that he became an ideal role model for young artists of the early 19th century that made him the English Romantic artist we know and love today. 

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