Romanticism: Blake & Reynolds
In his paintings, prints and poems William Blake strove to visualise the visionary imagery of the Bible, and the epic poetry of Thomas Gray, Milton, Bunyan and Dante. He expressed the essence of his creed in characteristically uncompromising terms as the 'Principal 1st' of his early tract All Religions are One (1788): 'the Poetic Genius is the true Man'. 1 Blake’s watercolour of Satan Arousing the Rebel Angels illustrates a scene from Milton's Paradise Lost (1667). Its figures are typical of his repertory of expressive poses stemming from Michelangelo and the Antique. While Blake's political radicalism, religious nonconformity and highly personal aesthetics limited his immediate influence, he was applauded by later generations as a heroic pioneer.
The annotations made by Blake in his copy of the Discourses on Art by Sir Joshua Reynolds epitomise the conflict between Romanticism and Classicism in Britain at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries.2 Despite the passion of Blake's celebrated tirade against 'the Opression of Sr Joshua & his Gang of Cunning Hired Knaves', the visionary poet, painter and printmaker actually shared substantial common ground with the urbane and influential Reynolds, the past master of the Grand Manner. Consequently, the expletives which Blake liberally sprinkled over his copy of the second (1798) edition of the Discourses range from 'Villainy!', 'A Lie!' and 'Nonsense!' to 'True!', 'Excellent!' and 'Well Said!'.
The contradictions in Reynolds's Discourses which so irritated Blake arose from their author's attempt to reconcile increasingly subjective and individualistic thinking with the rational and ideal traditions of European art criticism. Blake tended to skip over their points of agreement with a perfunctory word of assent, while locking horns with what he interpreted as 'Reynolds's Opinion…that Genius May be Taught & that all Pretence to Inspiration is a Lie & a Deceit'. He scornfully concluded 'The Enquiry in England is not whether a Man has Talents & Genius, But whether he is Passive & Polite & a Virtuous Ass & obedient to Noblemen's Opinions in Art & Science. If he is, he is a Good Man. If Not, he must be Starved'.
As an instance of mistreated genius Blake cited James Barry, who concentrated on history painting with a ferocious intensity which alienated him from society and his professional colleagues. Following Barry's death in poverty, Blake planned a poem in his memory, and bitterly recalled how he had 'Lived on Bread & Apples' and remained 'Poor & Unemploy'd except by his own energy', although he 'Painted a Picture for [Edmund] Burke, equal to Rafael or Mich. Ang. or any of the Italians'.3 Blake's elevation of faith and inspiration above reason and knowledge embody an outlook which was quintessentially romantic.
1 Quoted in D. Bindman, The Complete Graphic Works of William Blake, London 1978, pl.33, p.468.
2 J. Reynolds, Discourses on Art (ed. R.R. Wark), New Haven & London 1988, pp.xxvi-xxxi, 284-319.
3 Ibid., pp.284-5, 290.