William Blake

God Judging Adam


Not on display

William Blake 1757–1827
Relief etching, ink and watercolour on paper
Support: 432 × 535 mm
frame: 638 × 738 × 48 mm
Presented by W. Graham Robertson 1939

Display caption

This is a hand-finished relief etching, printed on paper from a copper plate. The broken texture visible along the light grey outline of God's right arm was produced as the printing plate was lifted off the paper.

Blake's figure of God resembles Urizen, a tyrannical law-maker in Blake's own mythology. God holds his sceptre in his right hand here but, because images are reversed during printing, Blake would have had to show it in God's left hand on the copper printing plate.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

N05063 God Judging Adam 1795

N 05063 / B 294
Colour-printed relief etching finished in ink and watercolour 432×535 (17 × 21 1/8) on paper approx. 545 × 770 (21 1/2 × 30 1/4)

Signed ‘WB inv [in monogram] 1795’ b.l. and inscribed ‘God speaking to Adam’ below design
Presented by W. Graham Robertson 1939
PROVENANCE Thomas Butts; Thomas Butts jun.; Capt. F.J. Butts; his widow, sold through Carfax April 1906 to W. Graham Robertson
EXHIBITED Carfax 1906 (27); Century of Art Grafton Galleries 1911 (60); Tate Gallery 1913 (14); on loan to the Tate Gallery 1920–7; BFAC 1927 (8, repr. p.8); British Art RA 1934 (781, repr. in 2nd ed. pl. 87; 702); Whitechapel 1934 (48); British Painting Paris 1938 (158); Wartime Acquisitions National Gallery 1942 (15); Tate Gallery 1947 (54) (all above as ‘Elijah’); Tate Gallery 1978 (87, repr.)
LITERATURE Rossetti 1863, p.203 under no.21, p. 208 no.66, and 1880, p.210 under no.23, p.216 no.72; Robertson in Gilchrist 1907, p.411, repr. facing p.140; Preston 1952, pp. 34–6 no.3, pl.3; Digby 1957, p.66, pl.62; Keynes Bible 1957, p.2 no.13, p.18 no.65a repr.; Butlin in Burlington Magazine, c, 1958, p.42; Blunt 1959, p.61, pl.28b; Martin Butlin ‘Blake's “God Judging Adam” Rediscovered’, in Burlington Magazine, CVII, 1965, pp.86–9, fig.43 (reprinted in Essick 1973, pp.303–10, pl. 103); Keynes Letters 1968, p.118; Beer 1969, p.XV; Bentley Blake Records 1969, p.572; Kostelanetz in Rosenfeld 1969, p.125, pl.3; Tolley in Blake Newsletter, VI, 1972–3, pp.28–9; Mellor 1974, pp.153–5, pl.40; Bindman 1977, pp.98–9; Klonsky 1977, p.58, repr. in colour; Paley 1978, p.37; Butlin in Blake, XIII, 1978–80, p.16; Essick Printmaker 1980, p.132; La Belle in Blake, XIV, 1980–1, p.72, pl.7; Butlin 1981, pp.160–1, colour pl. 390; Bindman in Blake, XVI, 1982–3, p.224; Essick in Blake, XVI, 1982–3, pp.32–3; Robert N. Essick, ‘A Supplement to The Separate Plates of William Blake: A Catalogue, in Blake, XVII, 1983–4, p.139; Boime 1987, pp.357–60, pl.4.52. Also repr: Mizue, no.816, 1973, ⅔, p.34 in colour: Mizue, no.882, 1978, 9, p.18 in colour

Listed in Blake's account with Butts of 3 March 1806 as ‘God Judging Adam’ with ‘Judging’ replacing the deleted word ‘Creating’ (‘God Creating Adam’ was listed separately below; see N05055); ‘God Judging’ was apparently delivered to Butts on 5 July 1805. There are two other pulls of the subject, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Butlin 1981, no.295, pl.385) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Butlin no.296, pl. 386). The first pull seems to be that in the Metropolitan Museum, the second that in the Tate, and the third at Philadelphia which may have been finished off in watercolour by another hand (see Essick in Blake XVI, 1982–3, p.36, repr.; my own view, because of the correspondence of the colouring to the related lines in Urizen (see below), is that the somewhat odd appearance of the Philadelphia version may be the result of time). The first two pulls, if not the third, appear for stylistic reasons to date from about 1795; in this design, the only example in which the outline seems to have been etched in relief, the initial printing of the first two pulls is in dark grey, and in the third an orange-brown. In addition to the three copies of the colour print there is an earlier version of the composition in watercolour in the collection of George Goyder (Butlin no.258, colour pl.198).

Until 1965 this design was known as ‘Elijah in the Fiery Chariot’, with Elisha standing before him. This identification seems to have originated in the middle of the nineteenth century: the catalogue of the sale of works from Frederick Tatham's collection held at Sotheby's on 29 April 1862 included the version now at Philadelphia as lot 189, ‘Elijah about to ascend in his Chariot’, and Rossetti's lists, published the following year, included the New York version as ‘Elijah mounted in the Fiery Chariot’ (1863, p.203 no.21, and 1880, pp.209–10 no.23). Rossetti also lists ‘God Judging Adam’ but merely gives the ownership as ‘From Mr Butts’ with a reference to the Butts account, showing that he had not seen the actual work (1863, p.208 no.66, and 1880, p.216 no.72). In addition he lists (1863, p.232 no.203, starred as of considerable size, no owner listed, and 1880, p.245 no.228) a ‘Judgment. Colour-printed. Presumed to be a “Last Judgment”; or, possibly, the “Judgment of Paris”?’, which may also be a faint echo of the same print though there is a watercolour of ‘The Judgment of Paris’ of 1811 (?) in the British Museum (Butlin no.675, colour pl.964). The discovery of the faintly pencilled title previously hidden under the mount of no.26 has established the connection with the hither to unaccounted-for ‘God Judging Adam’ of the Butts account; no ‘Elijah’ was known from early records, though not all the large prints from the Butts collection are listed in the accounts (see N05062 and N05056).

Like ‘Elohim Creating Adam’, this design reflects Blake's negative attitude to the God of the Old Testament in the mid 1790s, when his thought was at its most pessimistic. The stern embodiment of unyielding justice imposes his law on the stooping figure of Adam, who is shown transformed into God's own Urizen-like image. Much of the imagery of the design, and in particular the book on God's lap and the flames, which in the Philadelphia design burn darkly against a black sky, is paralleled in the verses of Urizen of the year before, 1794, in which Urizen is heard declaiming the laws of ‘the Book Of eternal brass... One command, one joy, one desire,... One King, one God, one Law’, upon which appear ‘All the seven deadly sins of the soul ... In the flames of eternal fury ... But no light from the fires: all was darkness In the flames of Eternal fury’ (Keynes Writings 1957, pp.224–5). The last line is on a page (plate 5) headed by an illustration showing Urizen surrounded by flames and holding the book of eternal brass, different in composition but similar in imagery to ‘God Judging Adam’. Urizen is described with ‘his chariot of fire’ in Vala or The Four Zoas, written c. 1796 onwards (Keynes Writings 1957, p.273). The design seems, in its depiction of the perverted energy of fire, to be the companion to ‘The Good and Evil Angels’ (see N05057): the two compositions condemn on the one hand the sameness imposed by Jehovah-Urizen's imposition of a single law and on the other the frustration of vital energy resulting from the opposition of the two angels, both being the result of the division of Man in the fallen world.

Boime makes an interesting comparison between the composition of this print and the combination of round wheels and straight driving arms in such machines as James Watt's double-acting rotative engine (an example of which was used in, perhaps significantly, the Albion Mills Company's flour mill) and Robert Fulton's adaptation of such a machine for use in a steam boat (both repr. Boime 1987, pls.4.53 and 4.54).

There is another interesting parallel, with the composition of George Stubbs's ‘Fall of Phaeton’ (version repr. Constance Anne Parker Mr Stubbs the Horse Painter 1971, p.31, and Basil Taylor Stubbs 1971, pls.94–5). A version of this may well have been known to Blake and the design could have been interpreted by him as representing the consequences of the Orc-like Phaeton letting his energies run away with him. ‘God Judging Adam’ shows the reverse; everything is static and dead.

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

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