Blake: Promulgating his paeans to political revolution and Anglican apostasy

William Blake, “The Angel of the Divine Presence Bringing Eve to Adam,” ca.1803, watercolor, pen and black ink over graphite on paper; 17 7/16 x 13 1/8″. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum.

In The Brooklyn Rail, Thomas Micchelli reports that William Blake could be the patron saint of our DIY era. “Compared to the dash and polish of Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds, the trendsetters of his time, Blake�s artwork is plodding and archaic. His figure drawings, at first glance, seem like clumsily muscle-bound imitations of Michelangelo, rounded and patterned so artificially that they could pass for doorknob designs. His color was often tonal and sometimes bloodless. And his illuminated books, as he called them, turn their back on printing technology since Gutenberg, using a single copper plate for both text and image. He had one retrospective in his lifetime, which was mounted in his family�s hosiery shop and panned by the one critic who wrote about it. Like C�zanne, he was discovered in the latter part of his life by a group of younger artists, but while C�zanne�s admirers became Fauves and Cubists, an epoch-defining avant-garde, Blake�s followers branded themselves the Ancients, rejected all modern trends in art (for a while, at least) and quickly fell into obscurity.

“He was the paragon of DIY, seizing control of the means of production to promulgate his paeans to political revolution and Anglican apostasy. He was interdisciplinary to the core, not recognizing (or, more likely, not noticing) categories or credentials. His art was the sum of his passions, wresting perfection from impurity and inconsistency through the ferocity of his convictions. Resisting the masterpiece syndrome, his most important works are small scale and serial�incremental rather than overwhelming in their effect. His anticipation of the ever-burgeoning art of the graphic novel is too obvious to discuss. And his achievement remains well outside any arc, pantheon, or canon. He wrote his own narrative, and illustrated it as well.”

William Blake�s World: A New Heaven Is Begun,� curated by Charles Ryskamp, Anna Lou Ashby, and Cara Denison. The Morgan Library and Museum, New York, NY.  Through January 3, 2010.


  1. Micchelli�s piece contains more howlers than bear noting.

    Blake�s rejection of Reynolds� classicism (his concessions to color and chiaroscuro) puts him firmly in the Romantics camp, and if anything, ahead of his time.

    �Anglican apostasy� was most certainly not the religion espoused in his work. Its mysticism derived from Swendborg, its radical Protestantism and egalitarianism time and again shunning the orthodoxies of the day, easily embracing the revolutionary sentiments of America and France at that time.

    His devotion to print also accompanies the fashion for satirical pamphlets and caricature such as Gilray and Rowlandson and is as much forced on a working class artist denied R.A. networking by the aristocratic Reynolds. Blake continued to make watercolours and experimented with his own (deeply flawed) versions of gouache since he had no hope of competing with a Fuseli, for example, although by some distance the bolder and more original.

    Blake�s footnotes to Reynolds� Discourses make it clear that he was far from an outsider or uninformed of the aesthetics of his day, much less an amateur or D-I-Y dabbler. His rejection of Rembrandt, Rubens, The Venetians and much of the High Renaissance anticipates the more plodding Medievalism of The Pre-Raphaelites, parallels The Nazarene Brotherhood of German artists in Rome and sets in train a puritanical devotion to line and modesty of scale that echoes throughout 19th century British painting.

    Blake was largely ignored in his day, but his example casts a long shadow across the British taste for literary themes and mystical anecdote. Blake is insular in just the ways Britain would grow to appreciate as French tastes grew more influential throughout the 19th century and beyond.

  2. Dear CAP,

    Regarding my comment on Blake's religion, look up "apostasy."

    Regarding my comparison of Blake to Reynolds and Gainsborough, look up "irony."

    Regarding my mention of DIY, look up "historical materialism."

    Thomas Micchelli

  3. I already did. Blake does not take Anglicanism or The Church of England as his point of departure! His 'apostasy' lies with The Old Testament!

    Your ignorance about 'irony' and 'historical materialism' are equally deplorable.

  4. Also, a more apt comparison for the recent artist melding poetry with illustration, might be west coast beat, Kenneth Patchem rather than Pier Paolo Pasolini (whose disciplines were more separated).

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