WILLIAM BLAKE ( 1757-1827) REVOLUTIONARY ARTIST AND VISIONARY WHO ATER THE NAPOLEONIC WARS TRIED TO ESTABLISH A NEW GENRE OF HISTORY PAINTING

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William Blake was an artist active at the time of Turner and Constable but through his revolutionary activities he was to be side lined and during the period after the Napoleonic wars attempted to establish a genre of History Painting. That he was not able to achieve it does not reflect on Blake but in the time he lived.

Commentators have often described aspects of Blake’s work which always had a religious element to it.

” Blake calls to witness the greatest art of the world, which depicts not what is seen by the mortal eye but an imagined perfection”. [1].  “The sinuous flowing line of his drapery , the elongation of his figures derive from the decorated or flamboyant gothic architecture and sculpture which he knew in Westminster Abbey”. [2]. It is clear that by line and shape Blake was a great  artist.

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Blake's Job

Henry Fuseli was among the friends that Blake kept in contact with . Fuseli a Swiss artist in the same tradition as Blake I will write about in my next posting. “Among Blake’s friends were the wild Fuseli and James Barry who executed the fine mural paintings in the Royal Society of arts” [3].

The revolutionary period of the 1780’s was to have a great effect on Blake. he would be an active participant in Demonstrations championing the poor and oppressed.

“The no- popery riots of 1780 made a deep impression on Blake who always championed the cause of the persecuted” [4].

Blake was adept at watercolours which he drew and coloured in his own hand. “Blake’s watercolour illumination carried out by hand also owed something to supernatural inspiration” [5].

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Divine Comedy, William Blake

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“Blake who was well read and wrote much poetry and studied philosophy  this had an influence on his artistic work. “Blake was also a Platonist he attacked Locke in his first engraved aphorisms ‘There is no natural religion’ precisely for his(Locke’s) refusal to accept Plato’s views that there are innate ideas”. [6].

Blake’s belief in the supernatural and religious led him to dwell on  mythology. “In America(1793) we find Blake’s natural mythological genius uneasily harnessed to a specific political theme -The American war of independence(The American revolution) “. [7]

“Blake’s prophetic allegories were a disguise he was forced to adopt by the danger of speaking openly on political issues at the time of the French Revolution”. [8].

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It was obvious that in philosophical terms Blake was an idealist who believed that feelings and emotions were central to his outlook. ” For Blake outward events and circumstances were the expression of states of mind ,Ideologies, mentalities. Blake’s dark satanic mills so often invoked in the name of social reform”. [9].

Unlike Turner and Constable he was not a fan of Landscape painting. if you look at all his work it is full of imagery and mythology. He rarely painted what he saw. ” Blake by no means shared the British love of landscape painting-he loved natural forms- tendril and leaf and the stranger forms of insect, worm and  spider as he did the human”. [10].

With Sir Joshua Reynolds as President of the Royal Academy it was difficult for Blake as landscape painting was the vogue of the time and the academicians did not understand or agree with Blake’s revolutionary depictions at the time. “From an aesthetic point of view it was unfortunate for Blake that the tradition within which he was working offered him no precedent” [11].

The Spiritual Form of Pitt Guiding Behemoth ?1805 William Blake 1757-1827 Purchased 1882 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01110

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Although Blake was no admirer of Landscape painting he did appreciate some of John Constable’s work.  “Blake admired John Constable too examining some of his work he exclaimed ‘ why this is vision’ to which the more prosaic Constable replied that he took it to be painting”. [12].

Some Marxist commentators have offered a more detailed perspective to Blake’s role in art and his inability to as successful as Turner and Constable . “Blake dwelt for the most part on the margins of artistic activity in his country effectively cut off from the preeminent fine art institutions  and the most respected avenues of patronage in late Georgian London”. [13].

“Throughout his career however he would remain an adversarial  outcast of the Academy and especially its hypocritical failure  to encourage a genuinely progressive English school of historical Art”. [14].

Marxist art Historians like myself have always stressed Blake’s revolutionary role in Georgian society and his attempt to organise change , unlike many artists and I include Constable ‘High Tory’ and Turner Blake was active in revolutionary politics. “Blake was in frequent contact with the radical, intellectual circle , which included  the political and feminist republicans Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft. These associations along with his social and professional roots in the urban , artistic milieu that was the wellspring of English Jacobinism during the 1790’s”. [15].

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Blake continued to be involved in insurrectionary activity in this period. “Blake’s experience of the Gordon riots- anti-catholic and anti colonial war protests in London that ignited into widespread mob violence. Blake was among the crows that stormed and burned Newgate prison”. [16].

This latest evidence shows Blake as a true Revolutionary well before the emergence of an Industrial working class. Many of the oppressed and poor lived in slum housing and extreme Poverty . The 1880’s would be the rapid growth of Trade Unions reflected in the ‘New unionism’ referred to by Frederick Engels the co founder of Marxism.  ” Blake’s preoccupation with the conflicting powers of revolution and oppression was inseparable from his Christian religious mysticism”. [17].

Blake always believed in History painting and his revolutionary role in art and politics was tinged with religious and mythological mysticism . This was the only way until a proper development of scientific and materialist views could be applied. It was the same with the Levellers and the Diggers whose leader was Gerrard Winstanley. There was no other way that his art could be displayed with its imagery and coloristic expressiveness. “Blake saw his art as belonging to an abortive tradition of History painting that, in his opinion had already fallen victim to the purely commercial vicissitudes  afflicting art patronage in England.[18].

In this article on William Blake I have tried to place both his art and politics in the context of the time that Blake lived. Blake was often ignored or rejected by the Academicians in the academy. This was because the art establishment were not interested in Revolutionary art but sought to portray Heroic acts of the rich and famous in huge frames mainly in oils. Blake rarely painted in oils , watercolours was one of his favourite mediums and he concentrated on imagery and mythology for his art. It is only now in the 20th Century  that his genius is being recognised.

FOOTNOTES

1 WILLIAM BLAKE- KATHLEEN RAINE.

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13) 19TH CENTURY ART A CRITICAL REVIEW

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