The sinister and sublime, in transcendent watercolors.
It is not uncommon for great artists to bring literary classics to pictorial life, from Picasso’s 1934 drawings for a naughty ancient Greek comedy toMatisse’s 1935 etchings for Ulysses to Salvador Dalí’s prolific illustrations forDon Quixote in 1946, the essays of Montaigne in 1947, Alice in Wonderlandin 1969, and Romeo & Juliet in 1975. But among the greatest such cross-pollinations of art and literature come from legendary poet and painterWilliam Blake (1757–1827), celebrated as one of the greatest creative geniuses in history and an inspiration to generations of artists, as well as a lifelong muse to Maurice Sendak.
In 1826, at age 65, Blake received a commission to illustrate Dante’s Divine Comedy thanks to John Linnell — a young artist he had befriended, who shared with Blake a defiance of modern trends and a belief in a spiritualism as an artistic foundation for the New Age. Blake was drawn to the project because, despite the five centuries that separated them, he resonated with Dante’s contempt for materialism and the way power warps morality — the opportunity to represent these ideas pictorially no doubt sang to him.
Alas, Blake died several months later, leaving the project uncompleted — but he had worked feverishly through his excruciating gallbladder attacks to produce 102 drawings, ranging from basic sketches to fully developed watercolors, literally working on the project on his dying day. Linnell, who had paid £130 for the drawings, lent Blake’s wife money for the artist’s funeral, which took place on their 45th wedding anniversary.
The Divine Comedy drawings were never published, but remained in Linnell’s possession. In 1913, more than thirty years after his death, Linnell’s family lent them to the Tate Gallery in London for a retrospective of Blake’s work. Five years later, they sold the paintings at an auction, inevitably scattering them across galleries in England, Australia, and the United States.
Fortunately, all 102 plates are reproduced and collected in the magnificent volume William Blake’s Divine Comedy Illustrations (public library), where Blake’s transcendent capacity for reconciling the sinister and the sublime springs to luminous life once more.