William Blake The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides 1824–7

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Artwork details

Artist
William Blake 1757–1827
Title
The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides
Date 1824–7
Medium Graphite, ink and watercolour on paper
Dimensions Support: 372 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
N03356
Not on display

Display caption

In this image Dante encounters the souls of those who have committed suicide and been transformed into trees as punishment for having relinquished their bodies. According to Lavater the tree has no physiognomy, so the figures are also stripped of any individuality. Harpies, mythological birds with the heads of women, feed upon them.

Blake gives his Harpies beaks rather than noses, thereby emphasising their bestiality. The squat shape of the Harpies and their large feet are reminiscent of owls, birds described by Lavater as particularly ‘stupid’ (contrary to modern associations of the bird with wisdom).

March 2011

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