William Blake

Dante in the Empyrean, Drinking at the River of Light

1824–7

View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms

Medium
Graphite and watercolour on paper
Dimensions
Support: 528 x 371 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
N03370

Display caption

This is an illustration to Purgatorio (Purgatory) from Dante’s Divine Comedy. It shows the earthly Paradise at the top of the mountain of Purgatory. Here Dante meets Beatrice, who is to become his guide and inspiration.

Dante is wearing red, symbolising love. He kneels down to drink from the river of light, which flows from the sun. Beatrice is shown sitting opposite Dante; Blake’s symbols for the Arts and Nature are immediately above them.

Gallery label, February 2004

Catalogue entry

N03370 Dante in the Empyrean, Drinking at the River of Light 1824–7

N 03370 / B 812 98
Pencil and watercolour 528×371 (20 3/4×14 5/8)
Inscribed ‘Par. Canto 30’ in ink over ‘Paradiso Canto 30’ in pencil b.r. and, on reverse in pencil, ‘N49 next at p16’ t.c., ‘37’ t.r. and ‘Hell Canto 26’ b.r., the last with the page 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 Tate Gallery 1947 (63); British Painting Hamburg, Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen 1949–50(3)
LITERATURE Rossetti 1863, p.223 no.103i, and 1880, p.234 no.125i; Roe 1953, pp.189–93 no.98, repr.; Klonsky 1980, pp.161–2, pl.101; Butlin 1981, p.587 no.812 98; Gizzi 1983, p.179 repr.

This is the only illustration in the Tate Gallery to Paradiso: XXX, 61–96. This does in fact reflect the relative paucity of illustrations to Dante's third book, ten as opposed to twenty illustrations to Purgatorio and seventy-two to Inferno, though Blake might well have rectified this inbalance had he lived to complete the series. Dante, with Beatrice, has now left the heaven of space to enter the infinite heaven of light, love and joy, through which runs a stream of light in the form of a river. The poet kneels drinking on the left, while Beatrice is on the right.

The other figures do not appear in Dante's text. Those on the left, above Dante, symbolise the arts, represented by an aged poet (identified by Roe as the regenerate Urizen) together with a scene of painting and engraving. On the other side, according to Roe, is the realm of Nature, represented by Enion, Blake's ‘Earth-Mother’, while Beatrice is equated with Vala, the Female Will. The sparkles in the water are shown as tiny figures, ‘infant joys’. The whole scene thus represents, according to Roe's interpretation, Art and Nature raised to the Eternal World through the agency of the River of Divine Imagination; even the figures normally condemned in Blake's mythology, Urizen, Enion and Vala, are here shown in their positive aspects.


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