Dante running from the Three Beasts (1824-1827)
illustration for The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (Inferno I, 1-90)
pen and ink and watercolour over pencil and black chalk
37.3 x 52.8 cm (sheet)
Butlin 812.1; Butlin & Gott 3
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Felton Bequest, 1920
This exhibition will showcase the NGV’s acclaimed collection of works by William Blake which includes spectacular watercolours, single prints and illustrated books. Due to the material’s light sensitivity, these works are only infrequently exhibited and the exhibition provides the rare opportunity to see the Gallery’s complete holdings of Blake’s work which span his full career, from his earliest to his latest years.
An artist and poet of outstanding originality, Blake used drawing and print media to express his own visionary universe, as well as that of authors such as Dante and Milton. His radiant watercolours and printed illustrations remain some of the most inspired and innovative images of the Romantic era.
The NGV owns thirty-six of the 102 watercolours Blake executed in the 1820s to illustrate Dante’s Divine Comedy, which are regarded as among the artist’s finest and most impressive creations. The artist’s early career is also represented in the exhibition by a selection of his reproductive engravings, produced to make a living, as well as a beautiful copy of one of his earliest illuminated books of his own poetry, The Songs of Innocence of 1789. This book, together with three single-pages from his prophetic books of the 1790s and early 1800s, exemplify the uniquely beautiful and original system for printing Blake devised for his illustrated books of poems in colour.
William Blake will also include two print series executed by the artist in his late years, both of which are startlingly original in the handling of their respective media. Blake’s wood-engravings illustrating Thornton’s publication of Virgil’s poetry (1820-21) brilliantly capture the variously pastoral or melancholy moods of the text in images bursting with intensity and a freedom previously unknown in this medium. The Book of Job cycle of engravings (1823–26) presents Blake’s personal and multi-layered interpretation of the Biblical narrative in images of great beauty and unconventionality.