William Blake was undoubtedly a genius who expressed his art through painting, non-fiction and poetry. Yet in life he was unknown and died in poverty. His visionary and spiritual style, fantastic and idealistic, was never appreciated while he was alive. Without knowing it, his brushstrokes and verses anticipated the movements of the soul of Romanticism, which would explode shortly thereafter.
Blake is perhaps one of the most unique and interesting artists in our history. In his works the sacred and that peculiar biblical mysticism emerge from which he used to draw inspiration. For most he was an obsessed man, a madman, because of the visions he claimed to have had since he was a child.
Throughout his life he claimed to receive visits from winged and demonic entities; these presences guided his style, his art and most of his engravings, as well as many of his books. Many of his works present a prophetic style, unknown until then. All this cost him the nickname of Bad Blake (Blake the crazy).
Whether it is madness, illness or simple creative force, William Blake is today considered a reference artist in the art world. Precisely that misunderstood mind saw in creation a way to reach one’s divinity, to transcend beyond that material world in which it was trapped.
In painting and literature, Blake left the mark of his loneliness, his emotions and the overwhelming visionary ideals that animated him.
The early years of the young visionary artist
William Blake was born in London in 1757 into a middle-class family. He was educated together with his 7 brothers in a house where everything revolved around two dimensions: the Bible and art. Historians believe that his parents belonged to the radical religious sect known as English dissenters, which could justify the mystical and spiritual views that would have inspired him so much during his artistic maturity.
Although he did not go to school, William Blake always had a strong attraction for drawing. He reproduced works by Raphael, Michelangelo, Marten Heemskerk and Albrecht Durer. Likewise, and with the help of his mother, he explored the poetic genre of the works of Ben Jonson and Edmund Spenser.
He had a deep artistic determination, a drive so strong that it enabled him to become an engraver’s apprentice in 1772. That training would last 7 years, before becoming an artist of the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Society. At the age of 21, he began working for various publishers copying the engravings of the tombs of kings and queens in Westminster Abbey.
Later, he completed his training as a painter at the Royal Academy of Art’s School of Design. Already during this early stage of his life, many of his works sprang from the visions he claimed to have had since childhood. He claimed to witness the appearance of monks, angels but also demons.
William Blake, an intellectual dissident
In 1782 William Blake married the young Catherine Boucher, a girl of humble origins to whom he gave lessons in reading and writing. He later introduced her to the art world, making her a companion in life and work.
William and his brother Robert founded a publishing house, an event that allowed them to offer support to all dissident intellectuals of the time. The works of revolutionary philosophers, writers and scientists such as Joseph Priestley, Richard Price, Henry Fuselli and Mary Wollstonecraft (one of the first feminists and mother of Mary Shelley, author of the novel Frankenstein ) were published by the Blake brothers .
During this period William Blake also printed his own works, including Visions of the Daughters of Albion . In the latter, he defended the right of women to personal fulfillment. Concurrently with this, he began experimenting with the engraving technique. Following one of his visions, he tried the etching technique to illustrate collections of poems, giving shape to what he called the “illuminated print”.
Between 1775 and 1789 the world was the scene of two great revolutions, the American and the French. These were a source of great inspiration for William Blake, an artist who always supported the freedom exalted by individualism, in the wake of Nietzsche’s thought.
The misunderstood and criticized art of William Blake
In 1804 William Blake begins his most ambitious work: Jerusalem , a book that illustrates and writes at the same time. He also begins exhibiting many of his works, such as The Canterbury Pilgrims and Satan Unleashes the Rebel Angels . Unfortunately, however, all his works, both literary and artistic, were the object of ridicule, indifference or criticism that pointed to Blake as mad.
Starting from 1809, the disenchantment and the awareness that his work would never be recognized led him to part with his engravings, his brushes and his verses.
Gradually, William Blake sank into oblivion and absolute poverty. He died at the age of 65 and was buried in Bunhill Fields Cemetery in London, where his tombstone can still be seen today.
The legacy of an artist who has chosen to look within himself
William Blake was not a painter like many British artists of his time. He avoided direct observation because his inspiration came from within himself, from that convulsive universe inhabited by prophetic visions.
His gaze did not focus on sunrises, trees, landscapes, oceans, or abbeys, like the productions of his contemporary Caspar David Friedrich.
In Blake’s poems and paintings there is the darkness of the inaccessible. There is that mystical force that frightens, worries and seems to reveal an indecipherable message.
For many critics his work was blasphemous, others sensed in his verses and drawings that premonitory air that would make him a key figure of Romanticism.