The picture is a part of the last watercolours that Blake did before he passed on in 1827.

The Technique

The painting depicts a scene from hell where Dante and Virgil, a Roman poet, advance through a forest. The forest is haunted by Harpies who were fictitious vulture-like death spirits. They have fat bellies, wings with human facial features. They are perched on trees above Dante and Virgil. In the painting, Dante is in red while Virgil is in blue on the right side. The tree in the central foreground has a face in its trunk, signifying the Suicides. In the poem, the Suicides are removed from their bodies and entombed in the trees.

The tender leaves of the oak trees, which are the soul of the Suicides, are eaten by the Harpies. The illustration depicts that the Self-Murderers are punished by growing as part of the trees, dying when the Harpies eat them or when they die. They then regrow again and are destroyed. The cycle of growth and destruction is a punishment for the senseless act of taking their life. Suicide at the time was considered an immoral act. The painting is done in dull colours, with Dante's red and blue colours and Virgil's clothes muted.

The trees are in soft brown-grey tones, while the trees in the background are darker. The dull colours lend an eerie feeling to the artwork. On the left side of the painting and in the centre of the trees in the background, the artist uses light colours to show some light coming through the gloom of the forest.

Inspiration

This painting was an 1824 commissioned piece from John Linnell, Blake's friend. Linnell asked for a series of illustrations that were based on Dante Alighieri's poem. Blake began the commission and managed to work on 100 watercolours based on the poem. He was able to colour some while he gilded seven of them. 

Location

The painting is displayed in the Tate Gallery in London. Linnell's estate sold the artwork in 1918 and the Tate Gallery received it in 1919, where it has remained to this day.