William Blake

Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car


Not on display

William Blake 1757–1827
Ink and watercolour on paper
Support: 372 × 527 mm
frame: 599 × 742 × 21 mm
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 Art Fund 1919

Display caption

At the end of The Divine Comedy, Dante is guided through Heaven by Beatrice, his ideal woman. Here she is surrounded by the four apostles, depicted as embodiments of the symbolic animals with which they are traditionally associated. Luke resembles an ox, a creature Lavater described as severe and simple, while Mark appears as a lion, which Lavater saw as strong and bold. John has the face of an eagle, which, according to Lavater, means he ‘must be a brave man’. Matthew is shown as a man with idealised, Christ-like features that seem to echo those of Beatrice.

Gallery label, March 2011

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Catalogue entry

N03369 Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car 1824–7

N 03369 / B 88
Pen and watercolour 372×527 (14 5/8×20 3/4)
Inscribed ‘P-g Canto 29 & 30’ in ink b.r. and, on reverse in pencil, ‘Pg Canto 29’ b.r. upside down and ‘24’ turned through a right-angle
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 RA 1893 (27); Paris and Vienna 1937 (27); Paris, Antwerp, Zurich and Tate Gallery 1947 (29v, repr.); Hamburg and Frankfurt 1975 (215, colour pl.15); Tate Gallery 1978 (334, repr.); Pescara 1983 (18, repr.in colour).
LITERATURE Rossetti 1863, p.222 no.102s, and 1880, p.234 no.124s; Keynes Faber Gallery 1946, p.22, colour pl.10; Roe 1953, pp.164–71 no.88, repr.; Blunt 1959, p.91, pl.63; Roe in Rosenfeld 1969, p.183, pl.20; Gage in Warburg Journal, XXXIV, 1971, p.375 n.26c; Bindman 1977, pp.218–19, pl.179; Klonsky 1977, p.111, repr.in colour; Paley 1978, p.73, colour pl.112; Paley in Essick and Pearce 1978, p.177; Klonsky 1980, pp.17, 158–9, colour pl.91; Butlin 1981, p.584 no.812 88, colour pl.973; Gizzi 1983, p.169 repr., and in colour pp.70–1; Hilton 1983, pp.216, 228, pl.69; Baine 1986, p.109, pl.47; Fuller in Art History 1988, pp.354–7, pl.42. Also repr: Savay, no.5, September 1896, p.29; Mizue, no.882, 1978, 9, pp.34–5 in colour

This is an illustration to Purgatorio XIX, 92–129, XXX, 31–3 and 64–81, and XXXI, 113–14 and 130–45; the scene takes place in the Terrestial Paradise. For Dante the gryphon and Beatrice symbolised Christ and the Church, and the three girls (in white, green and red) Faith, Hope and Charity; the figures at the four corners of the car are the four Evangelists. The previous illustration, now in the British Museum (Butlin 1981, no.812 87, repr. Roe 1953, pl.87, Klonsky 1980, pl.90 in colour, and Gizzi 1983, p.168) shows the poet's first view of Beatrice on the car (or chariot) seen across the river Lethe; Virgil has now left Dante at the borders of Purgatory itself and Dante is escorted by Matilda, probably the Grancomtessa of Tuscany (1046–1115), a great benefactor of the Holy See and Church.

This is one of the key works in Roe's interpretation of the series as in part a criticism of Dante. The divergences from Dante's text, such as the vortex that acts as the wheel of the car, the gold crown substitued for Beatrice's olive wreath, the book towards which Faith is pointing, the child-like forms surrounding Charity, and the fact that Dante is shown having now crossed the river Lethe, are taken to suggest that Blake is depicting the subjection of the Poetic Genius (Dante) to the Female Will (Beatrice); the latter is equated with Rahab, the fallen state of Vala, Blake's goddess of nature, the three attendant figures with the Daughters of Memory, and the Evangelists with the four Zoas. Dante is thus shown as choosing the wrong way out of Beulah, Blake's equivalent for Purgatory. Fuller however disputes this, suggesting that, despite Blake's inscription, the scene is actually that described in Canto XXXI of Purgatorio with elements taken from the previous two Cantos. In Canto XXXI Dante has crossed Lethe and Beatrice is shown at the moment when she draws aside her veil. The reason she wears a crown rather than a wreath is that Blake disliked Dante's association of Beatrice with Minerva; Dante describes Beatrice as wearing the ‘fronde di Minerva’ (XXX, 68). Charity is usually shown surrounded by children, as indeed in Blake's tempera painting of the subject (Butlin 1981, no.428, pl.494). The book at which Faith is pointing is the scriptures. Hope, though usually shown with an anchor, is twice mentioned by Dante as dancing. The reason for the colourful vortex that replaces the wheel of the car, Fuller suggests, is that Blake wanted to convey the intense light by which Dante is dazzled; in the text this comes from the candelabrum borne ahead of the car, and indeed its rays are suggested flooding across the composition from the right. The source for Blake's imagery is Ezekiel's vision (Ezekiel, 1, 15–21) of great wheels full of eyes and turned by the spirits of living creatures. Ezekiel also provides the source of the animal heads shown each side of Beatrice which are merely hinted at by Dante; they are of course the traditional symbols of the Evangelists. Fuller suggests that Blake avoids the identification of Beatrice with the Church but sees her as Divine Wisdom. The great advantage of Fuller's interpretation is that, unlike Roe's, it does not run counter to the generally joyous effect of this glowing watercolour, which has always been a problem to at least some Blake scholars.

A newly discovered pencil sketch of a standing woman of the Huntington Library is related to the figure of Charity, in red and standing second from the left, and also, in the turn of the head and the piling up of the hair, to that of Faith, in white in the centre of the composition. This drawing was found on the back of a sketch for the engraving of another of the Dante compositions, ‘The Six-footed Serpent Attacking Agnolo Brunelleschi’ (Butlin no.822; for the new drawing see Jenijoy La Belle, ‘A Pencil Sketch for Blake's Dante Illustrations’, Blake, XIX, 1985–6, pp.73–4, repr.pl.1, and Essick Huntington 1985, pp.128–31).

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

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