I’ve got to be me

Most of those who call themselves artists are in reality picture dealers, except they make the pictures themselves. British satirist Samuel Butler said this not long after artist and poet William Blake died; unaware that Blake was the exception to his view of artists. Recognized today as one of the art greats of the Western World, Blake suffered neglect from #Art lovers and critics all of his life and a long time afterwards, too. Yet, despite his lack of success, he stayed true to himself and never compromised his decidedly esoteric art-making for the sake of a sale. 

Now for the first time in nearly two centuries, Blake is getting a gallery dedicated to his work -- more than a thousand exhibit examples of his writing and engravings.

Putting on airs

Besides disregard, Blake suffered disparagement. He just didn’t fit in. The prized art at the time was that of Sir Joshua Reynolds who bestowed classical grandeur on his sitters. His Portrait of Charles Coote, Earl of Bellamont, dressed in robes of the Order of the Bath, is positively exalting. By contrast, the work of Blake, who liked to use his imagination, appears unearthly. Blake not only pooh-poohed Reynolds, but also blamed him for what he called England’s bad taste in art.

Blake’s taste ran to outlining. You can see it in the clinging clothes of his figures. Extolling the “bounding line,” he believed the less sharp, the more chance for bungling. How else to distinguish the oak from the beech; leave out line and you leave out life and all is chaos, he said.

A wealth of ideas

Blake tried for recognition with an exhibit in 1809 in the home of his brother James. But the show failed to get any attention and he remained poor. But those who pity him shouldn’t. Believing it’s the successful artists who need to be pitied because they sold their souls for money, he contended his visions made him rich.

Biographer Alexander Gilcrist tried to look into the visions that Blake said he experienced. When the artist spoke about seeing the spiritual apparition of a flea, Gilcrist asked him to draw what he saw. While making the drawing, Blake said the flea told him that fleas were inhabited by the souls of blood-thirsty men who are providentially confined to the size and form of insects. It’s hard to know if he was joking.

Blake’s last work, “The Ancient of Days” was about a vision he claimed seeing at the top of his staircase. He said it was more powerful than all his other visions and was his favorite work. Biographer Allan Cunningham reported that three days before the artist died, he sat up in bed and colored the drawing. It was his final creative act, unless you count a drawing of his beloved wife who stood in tears at his deathbed as he sketched her. #Buzz