William Blake

The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides

1824–7

On display at Tate Britain

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

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).

Gallery label, March 2011

Catalogue entry

N03356 The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides 1824–7 [A00005-A00011; N03351-N03370; T01950-T01956; complete]

N 03356 / B 812 24
Pen and watercolour 372×527 (14 5/8×20 3/4)
Inscribed ‘HELL Canto 13’ in ink b.r. and, on reverse in pencil, ‘N21 next at p.86’ t.c. and again in centre, turned through a right-angle, and ‘Hell Canto 13’ b.r.
Watermarked ‘WELGAR 1796’
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 Pescara 1983 (5, repr.in colour)
LITERATURE Rossetti 1863, p.217 no.101w, and 1880, p.229 no.123w; Roe 1953, pp.79–80 no.24, repr.; Klonsky 1977, p.115, repr.; Klonsky 1980, p.143, colour pl.25; Butlin 1981, pp.563–4 no.812 24; Gizzi 1983, p.103 repr., and repr. in colour p.57; Warner 1984, p.112

This is an illustration to Inferno XIII, 2–108, a scene in the second ring of the seventh circle of hell. Dante and Virgil are in a wood full of harpies, birds with human heads which feed upon the leaves of trees in which are encased people who have committed suicide. Dante has just torn a branch off the tree in which is embedded Pier delle Vigne, a minister of the Emperor Frederick II who committed suicide after losing favour. The upside-down female figure transformed into a tree on the left may have been suggested by Dante's reference to ‘La Meretrice’, Envy, to whom Pier delle Vigne attributes his disgrace; it also represents the vegetative existence seen at its lowest.


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

Tate Etc.

MicroTate 5

Sista Pratesi, Tomma Abts, Gerald Davies and Marcel Dzama reflect on a work in the Tate collection