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Monday, August 1, 2011

William Blake

The one constant that seems to plague every artist is the unending search for inspiration. Sometimes we refer to it as searching for source material, or subject matter, or just plain "ideas." Michelangelo made a false start on his immortal ceiling for lack of inspiration. Landscape artists have trekked to foreign continents in search of it. Minds have been lost, even lives, as artists have plumbed the depths of their souls in seeking inspiration to feed their creative urges. Still life artists have merely to seek interesting objects and pleasing arrangements. Portrait artists seek the right client; figurative painters, the right bod; abstractionists, the right mood; narrative artists, the right story; and history painters, the right dramatic event. Strangely enough, one of the largest pools of inspiration may be right under the artists' noses--in books, on the shelves of their personal library, in the Bible, or other great literature. It was this source English artist William Blake sought and found. It provided him enough inspiration to last a lifetime.

Blake's lifetime spanned the years 1757 to 1827. His literary sources were the Bible, Milton, and Shakespeare, as well as his own writings. His only artistic influence seems to have been Michelangelo whom he studied from books and reproductions. In fact, he seems to have been a very "bookish" sort as artists go. He seems also to have gotten much of his art instruction from books, which he learned to read at a very early age. At the early age of seven, he was apprenticed to an engraver where his personal style was fixed. He attended classes for a short time at the Royal Academy but had such a strong dislike for its dictatorial headmaster, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and his formalist ideas that he quickly dropped out and pursued his own individualistic way. And, while he painted with egg tempera on panels, it is his colored engravings that are most well known to us today.

Pity, c. 1795, William Blake
Besides being something of a genius, Blake was also blessed (or cursed) with "visions" from early childhood on. His hallucinations often involved angels which quite often became the subjects for his works. This was the case for his large, pen and ink, tempera mono-type titled Pity, created around 1795. It depicts a passage from Macbeth in which the king speaks of his plan to assassinate Duncan. The work depicts a wind-blown cherub on a soaring, elongated, white horse, gently plucking a naked baby from a semi-nude female figure floating near the base of the picture. Obviously, he strayed a bit from Shakespeare. With such personal, esoteric output, Blake barely eked out a living until 1779 when he met the much more successful painter of similar genre, John Henry Fuseli, who hired him to make engravings of his paintings. The two maintained a close working relationship until the last ten years of Blake's life when his "visions" drove him to become a total recluse. Perhaps genius isn't all it's cracked up to be.

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