William Blake is considered one of the leading lights of the Romantic movement of the late 18 th
century. However, he was older when the movement first began which leads us to surmise that he
may, indeed, have been an inspiration for and therefore a founder of the movement. Blake himself
would have been appalled by the notion of being limited to any particular style and always insisted
that he painted solely from his imagination which he considered to be any artist’s most valuable
tool. Although he was a master in many fields of the arts, both written and visual, he arguably found
his zenith through his painting. Predominately a watercolourist, he left a remarkable collection of
more than 260 paintings on his death in 1827. While many of his works remain in private collection,
there is often opportunity to view exhibits in galleries around the world, most notably the Tate
Gallery in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Blake’s artistic nature and talents were spotted very early on by his parents and at the age of ten he
was enrolled in the prestigious Henry Par drawing academy. He studied there for four years and
developed a deep appreciation for the classics, practicing drawing by copying antiquities. The
academy is also where he first encountered the works of Raphael and Michelangelo, masters who
would become a lifelong inspiration to William.
By the age of 14, William left the academy and began a seven-year apprenticeship as an engraver
with James Basire. Basire’s business almost entirely consisted of creating illustrations of antiquaries
which of course, suited Blake’s established passions and the young man did very well. He was to use
his skills at his trade to provide for himself and his family his whole life.
After Blake qualified as an engraver he enrolled for a short time in the Royal Academy of Art where
he certainly learned to refine his drawing skills of the human form. However, it was difficult for
young William to supress his ire at the way in which the academy was run by its president Sir Joshua
Reynolds. Blake believed that while Reynolds professed to support artistic expression he did, in fact,
supress it by insisting that creativity was a general term, while William believed it to be definite and
exact. He believed that an artist must give his all to ahis craft, there could be no half-measures.
As previously mentioned, Blake’s first and most enduring artistic influences were the greats of the
renaissance, Michelangelo and Raphael. He valued and copied their use of form and the evidence of
their influence if apparent in many of his paintings.
However, Williams work was also informed by the social and political environment of the day. Most
especially in his choice of subject matter and his sympathetic opinions which were readily expressed
in his work. Blake was a passionate abolitionist and created many disturbing images involving
slavery in the hope that they may shock the general public form their complacency. In his graphic, “A
Negro Hung Alive” for example, there can be no doubt of the artist’s view on the horrors of the slave
Blake was also disturbed by the way in which women were treated and the fact that they were often
forced into loveless situations to become chattel of their husbands. In the prophetic work, “Visions
of the Daughters of Albion”, William creates images of women supressed and trapped by their
marriage vows, coupled with the poetry of the piece there is little room for interpretation of the
Perhaps more than any other influence, it was William’s own mindscape that produced some of his
most exquisite works. From a very young age, Blake regularly had visions of a religious and
supernatural nature. These apparitions brought his messages and insights which he then translated
into his artwork, ultimately creating a whole world of fantasy creatures. These beings dominated his
paintings, particularly those attached to his prophetic books as in, “The Book of Thel” and “The Book
William’s work is classed as romanticism, but this pigeon-hole seems too limiting. Romanticism is
defined by academics as a movement which affirms individualism and feelings. It draws its
inspiration from the medieval past and from nature. It is therefore quite understandable that Blake
would be grouped with the likes of Thomas Cole and Edward Calvert because his work was always of
an elemental nature. However, the fact that Blake’s style had a medieval quality to it was almost
incidental. His paintings were created as illustrations for his books of poetry using his unique
etching technique and thus presented as beautiful illuminated manuscripts. Other romantic painters
instead used medieval folklore as their subject matter, something that Blake never did.
Blake’s work was largely dismissed, in his lifetime, as nonsense or at worst lunacy. Therefore, it is
difficult to imagine that he ad much effect or influence on his contemporaries and their style.
However, only twenty years after his death, critics were already re-examining his body of work and
declaring it genius. It is reasonable to assume then that the later romantic artists could indeed have
been inspired by Williams fantastical and free ranging work. What is certainly beyond doubt is that
his use of colour and form was a jumping of point for the Pre-Raphaelites to come.
Most Famous Works
There are a great many remarkable paintings in Blake’s cannon, however there are some that are
more famous or seminal than others and warrant discussion.
Possibly the first image that comes to mind when one visualises the work of Blake is the cover of
“Songs of Innocence and Experience” (1789). Crafted in watercolour and ink, it beautifully blends
both image and text to create a seamless painting. The painting depicts a man and a woman, most
likely Adam and Eve, bent in anguish. This image absolutely encapsulates the contents of the book
which highlights the duality of existence; the innocence of youth which is slowly and completely
corrupted by life and experience. William’s use of bold colours was a complete departure from the
style of the day and is now considered one of the most iconic elements of his painting in general.
While the cover of the book is perhaps the best known, the entire book contains some of Blake’s
most vivid work. There are only a small number of the books in existence, three of which are owned
by The British Museum.
Perhaps one of Blake’s most traditionally romantic paintings is, “The Parable of the Wise and Foolish
Virgins” (1800). Commissioned by Blake’s friend Thomas Butts it depicts a passage from the gospel
of Matthew and displays a great homage to the paintings of the renaissance greats such as Fra
Angelico and Michelangelo. A watercolour finished in pen and ink, the painting displays a group of
pious “wise” virgins to the left and a vanquished group of “foolish” virgins to the left, cowering
under the judgement of God who is indicated by the winged angel overhead. The most remarkable
aspect of the painting’s construction is the luminous use of colour which emanates from the canvas
and conveys the truly celestial scene of the imminent presence of God. Although William was not a
devoutly religious person, he had a huge amount of respect for the bible as a text believing it to be a
source of infinite creative inspiration and he had a very spiritual view of life. This painting can be
found today in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
One of the best painting to use to highlight Blake’s inner worlds is surely, “The Great Red Dragon and
the Woman Clothed in Sun” (c. 1805). This work, which is also created with watercolour and ink, is a
clear example of the fantastic world that William created with his mind. Again, this painting was
commissioned by Thomas Butts and it depicts another biblical scene, this time from the Book of
Revelations. In the painting an enormous and grotesque dragon, human hybrid creature hovers over
a reclining woman in a fierce interpretation of the apocalyptic times. This work is one of over one
hundred illustrations created at the behest of Butts, and it is quite something to behold. The body
of the creature is magnificent and beautiful while at the same time terrifying, and the whole subject
is bathed in the light of God, signifying that it is, in fact, His will that has brought the world to this
point. Blake created a number of “Red Dragon” paintings and they have become so much a part of
artistic vernacular, that they inspired the books and subsequent movies by Thomas Harris; “The Red
Dragon”, “the Silence of the Lambs” and “Hannibal”. Thus, cementing William’s work in our culture
even more deeply.
Finally, a painting that highlights Williams thoroughly unorthodox view of the Bible and religion in
general, “The Angels Hovering Over the Body of Christ in the Sepulchre” (c. 1805). Yet again, this is a
Thomas Butts commission and it is also painted using Blake’s preferred watercolours and pen. It
describes the angels coming to Jesus’ body in the tomb to help raise him up from his death after the
crucifixion. It has been documented by scholars that the angels as they are shown were actually the
same angels that had come to William in many of his visions. In a further departure from traditional
composition, he has painted the angels as described in the old testament rather than the new
showing his irreverence and reinforcing his view that the bible was only a suggestion to encourage
the artist’s imagination. Although the painting is, in fact, full of colour, Blakes masterful use of tone
and blending creates an almost monochromatic hue, magnifying the spiritual quality of the scene.
This glorious example of Blakes genius can be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
William Blake’s Artistic Legacy
Blake’s legacy is profound, and this profundity is perhaps most evident in his paintings. Although
much of the work was created to adorn his writing, they are moving and exquisite in equal measure
and have had a much-lauded influence on artists for centuries. William Michael Rossetti famously
described Blake in his “Poetical Works of William Blake”, as a "glorious luminary", and "a man not
forestalled by predecessors, nor to be classed with contemporaries, nor to be replaced by known or
readily surmisable successors". This succinct description is perfectly express for a man how was a
way-shower and has proved a guiding light to creatives of all mediums, most especially visual artists.
Many believe that Blake’s influence on his artistic descendants led not only to future romanticism,
but neo-romanticism, modernism and post modernism, surrealism and even today’s graphic novels
and modern motion picture. He has been described as one of the most influential artists of any age
and his work continues to inspire today.