William Blake

Dante and Virgil Penetrating the Forest

1824–7

Medium
Graphite, ink and watercolour on paper
Dimensions
Support: 371 x 527 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased with the assistance of a special grant from the National Gallery and donations from the Art Fund, Lord Duveen and others, and presented through the the Art Fund 1919
Reference
N03351

Display caption

Blake produced one hundred and two watercolours illustrating Dante's poem The Divine Comedy. He drew and painted them in a large volume, but they are now separately mounted. They show varying stages of completion. This work is unfinished; the pencil lines of his first sketch remain clearly visible.

Blake added grey shadows in carbon black pigment on top of the colours he had used first. He strengthened some of the drawing with pen and ink over the colour. Both the blue pigment and the mixed green shades contain indigo. This lowers the contrast between them.

Gallery label, September 2004

Catalogue entry

N03351 Dante and Virgil Penetrating the Forest 1824–7 [A00005-A00011; N03351-N03370; T01950-T01956; complete]

N 03351 / B 8122
Pencil, pen and watercolour 371×527 (14 9/16×20 3/4)
Inscribed ‘HELL Canto 2 line 140’ b.r. in pencil,? not by Blake, and, on reverse in pencil, ‘92’ t.r., ‘N37 next at p 71’ t.c. and ‘Hell Canto 22’ along right-hand edge as seen with the paper 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 John Linnell; his heirs, sold Christie's 15 March 1918 (in 148, the entire Dante series) £7,665 bt Martin for the donors
EXHIBITED Tate Gallery (41 i), Manchester (48i), Nottingham (42 vi) and Edinburgh (56) 1913–14, as ‘Tu duca, tu signore, e tu maestro’
LITERATURE Rossetti 1863, p.216 no.101b, and 1880, p.227 no.123b; Roe 1953, pp.50–1 no.2, repr.; Klonsky 1980, p.137, pl.2; Butlin 1981, p.556 no.812 2; Gizzi 1983, p.80 repr. Also repr.: Savoy, no.3, July 1896, p.43

This is an illustration to Inferno II, 139–42. Dante, in the midst of his mortal life, has found himself lost in a great forest and pursued by three beasts. He encounters Virgil who offers to lead Dante to safety, telling him that this entails a journey through Hell and Purgatory to Paradise. In this design, the second of the series, Virgil leads Dante on through the forest. The title under which the drawing has sometimes been known is a line from the appropriate text, ‘Tu duca, tu signore, e tu maestro’. Blake shows the trees as oaks, perhaps to represent Druidical error.

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