William Blake  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

William Blake (November 28 1757August 12 1827) was an English poet, visionary, painter, and printmaker. Blake was an important proponent of imagination as the modern western world currently defines the word. His belief that humanity could overcome the limitations of its five senses is perhaps one of Blake's greatest legacies. His words, "If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite," (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell) were seen as bizarre at the time, but are now accepted as part of our modern definition of imagination. This quote was the source of the names for both The Doors musical group and Aldous Huxley's book The Doors of Perception. His most grotesque paintings are the series The Great Red Dragon Paintings.

Contents

Reception

Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, Blake's work is today considered seminal and significant in the history of both poetry and the visual arts. According to Northrop Frye, who undertook a study of Blake's entire poetic corpus, his prophetic poems form "what is in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language." Others have praised Blake's visual artistry, Jonathan Jones proclaimed Blake "far and away the greatest artist Britain has ever produced." Once considered mad for his idiosyncratic views, Blake is highly regarded today for his expressiveness and creativity, and the philosophical vision that underlies his work. As he himself once indicated, "The imagination is not a State: it is the Human existence itself."

While his visual art and written poetry are usually considered separately, Blake often employed them in concert to create a product that at once defied and superseded convention. Though he believed himself able to converse aloud with Old Testament prophets, and despite his work in illustrating the Book of Job, Blake's affection for the Bible was accompanied by hostility for the established Church, his beliefs modified by a fascination with Mysticism and the unfolding of the Romantic Movement around him. Ultimately, the difficulty of placing William Blake in any one chronological stage of art history is perhaps the distinction that best defines him. He was voted 38th in a poll of the 100 Greatest Britons organized by the BBC in 2002.

Royal Academy

On 8 October 1779, Blake became a student at the Royal Academy in Old Somerset House, near the Strand. While the terms of his study required no payment, he was expected to supply his own materials throughout the six-year period. There, he rebelled against what he regarded as the unfinished style of fashionable painters such as Rubens, championed by the school's first president, Joshua Reynolds. Over time, Blake came to detest Reynolds' attitude towards art, especially his pursuit of "general truth" and "general beauty". Reynolds wrote in his Discourses that the "disposition to abstractions, to generalising and cfclassification, is the great glory of the human mind"; Blake responded, in marginalia to his personal copy, that "To Generalize is to be an Idiot; To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit". Blake also disliked Reynolds' apparent humility, which he held to be a form of hypocrisy. Against Reynolds' fashionable oil painting, Blake preferred the Classical precision of his early influences, Michelangelo and Raphael.

David Bindman suggests that Blake's antagonism towards Reynolds arose not so much from the president's opinions (like Blake, Reynolds held history painting to be of greater value than landscape and portraiture), but rather "against his hypocrisy in not putting his ideals into practice." Certainly Blake was not averse to exhibiting at the Royal Academy, submitting works on six occasions between 1780 and 1808.

Blake became a friend of John Flaxman, Thomas Stothard and George Cumberland during his first year at the Royal Academy. They shared radical views, with Stothard and Cumberland joining the Society for Constitutional Information.

Bibliography

Illuminated books

Non-illuminated

Illustrated by Blake




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