Catalogue entry

N03354 Cerberus 1824–7 [A00005-A00011; N03351-N03370; T01950-T01956; complete]

N 03354 / B 812 12
Pencil, pen, and watercolour 372×528 (14 5/8×20 3/4)
Inscribed ‘HELL Canto 6’ in ink b.l. and, on reverse, ‘29’ t.r., turned through a right-angle Watermarked ‘WE’
Purchased with the assistance of a special grant from the National Gallery and donations from the National Art-Collections Fund, Lord Duveen and others, and presented through the National Art-Collections Fund 1919
PROVENANCE As for N03351
EXHIBITED ?R A 1893 (5); Tate Gallery 1947 (61); Pescara 1983 (3, repr. in colour)
LITERATURE Rossetti 1863, p.217 no.101l, and 1880, p.228 no.123l; Roc 1953, pp.66–7 no.12, repr.; Klonsky 1980, pp.139–40, colour pl.12; Butlin 1981, pp.559–60 no.812 12; Gizzi 1983, p.90 repr., and in colour p.55

This is an illustration to Inferno VI, 13–24. The three-headed monster Cerberus is shown guarding the entrance to the third circle of hell. There is a second version of this subject in the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (Butlin, 1981 no.812 13, repr. Roe 1953, Klonsky 1980 and Gizzi 1983, all as pl.13). Roe suggests that the Melbourne version was done before that in the Tate and was abandoned because it failed to show Cerberus in a sufficiently formidable manner; the sketch formerly in the collection of Hugo Schwab (Butlin no.818 verso, pl.1068) is closer to the Melbourne version. However, the Melbourne version seems to illustrate a slightly later moment in the narrative, the pacification of the beast through being fed handfuls of earth by Virgil (Inferno VI, 22–33); in the Tate watercolour Virgil is shown as being less directly involved, just about to feed the first of Cerberus's three heads.

In both watercolours Blake shows Cerberus in a cave which is not in Dante's text, probably to suggest the weight of the material world.

The work exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1893 was entitled ‘Cerberus-the Circle of the Gluttons’. This could be either of the two versions of ‘Cerberus’ already mentioned or ‘The Circle of the Gluttons, with Cerberus’ now in the Fogg Art Museum (Butlin no.812 11, repr. Roe 1953, Klonsky 1980 and Gizzi 1983, all as pl.11).


Published in:
Martin Butlin, William Blake 1757-1827, Tate Gallery Collections, V, London 1990