William Blake

Moses Indignant at the Golden Calf


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William Blake 1757–1827
Tempera on canvas
Support: 380 × 266 mm
frame: 473 × 360 × 48 mm
Bequeathed by Ian L. Phillips 1986

Display caption

This painting illustrates a scene in the Old Testament book Exodus. Moses was called by God to Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, written on two slabs of stone. One Commandment was 'Thou shalt have no other gods before me'. However, in Moses's absence, the Israelites were worshipping a statue of a golden calf. When Moses saw this he broke the stone slabs in fury. In Blake's own mythology, a character named Urizen makes iron laws to repress Man. Blake links Urizen with God and Moses who made the laws of organised religion, which Blake wanted to see destroyed.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

William Blake 1757-1827

T04134 Moses Indignant at the Golden Calf c.1799-1800

Tempera on canvas 380 x 266 (15 x 10 1/2) relined on canvas 387 x 273 (15 1/4 x 110 3/4)
Inscribed 'W B [?inv]' in monogram, damaged, ? with traces of a date, b.l. Bequeathed by Ian L. Phillips and acquired 1986
Prov: Commissioned by Thomas Butts; Thomas Butts jun.; Capt. F.J. Butts; his widow, sold April 1906 through Carfax to W. Graham Robertson, sold Christie's 22 July 1949 (10) ?462 bt Ian L. Phillips (d. 1984), by whom bequeathed to the Tate Gallery with a life interest to his wife, relinquished 1986
Exh: The Century of Art Exhibition, 1810-1911, International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, Grafton Galleries, June-July 1911 (56); on loan to Tate Gallery from before 1939 until 1949; William Blake (1757-1827) , Tate Gallery, Aug.-Sept. 1947 (52); Original Works by William Blake (1757-1827) from the Graham Robertson Collection, Bournemouth College of Art, April 1949, Southampton Art Gallery, April-May 1949, Brighton Art Gallery, May-June 1949 (22); The Tempera Paintings of William Blake, Arts Council Gallery, June-July 1951 (13); William Blake, Tate Gallery, March-May 1978 (134, repr.)
Lit: William Michael Rossetti, 'Annotated Catalogue of Blake's Pictures and Drawings' in Alexander Gilchrist, Life of William Blake, 1863, II, p.224 no.117, and 1880, II, p.236 no.140; Kerrison Preston, The Blake Collection of W. Graham Robertson, Described by the Collector, 1952, p.126 no.43, pl.43; Geoffrey Keynes, William Blake's Illustrations to the Bible, 1957, p.14 no.42, repr.; Anthony Blunt, The Art of William Blake, 1959, p.66; David Bindman, Blake as an Artist, Oxford 1977, p.125; Martin Butlin, The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake, New Haven and London 1981, pp.316-18, 320 no.387, p1.487; Janet A. Warner, Blake and the Language of Art, Kingston and Montreal, and Gloucester 1984, pp.68-161. Also repr: Tate Gallery Report 1984-6, 1986, p.56 (col.)

This is one of the approximately fifty pictures in tempera of biblical subjects painted for Blake's most important patron, Thomas Butts (1757-1845). There are dated examples of 1799 and 1800; single examples were exhibited at the Royal Academy in these two years. Blake tefers to what seem to be these tempera paintings in a letter to George Cumberland of 26 August 1799: 'as to Myself about whom you are so kindly Interested, I live by a Miracle. I am Painting small Pictures from the Bible ... My Work pleases my employer & I have an order for Fifty small Pictures at One Guinea each'. Thirty examples are known today and over twenty further biblical subjects can be more or less definitely identified as having been painted in tempera. The medium of these works seems to have been similar to that used in Blake's large colour prints of 1795 and later. Indeed, Blake used the same word 'fresco' both for some of his colour prints and for some of his later tempera paintings. According to J.T. Smith, 'Blake's modes for preparing his ground, and laying them over his panels for painting, mixing his colours, and manner of working, were those which he considered to have been practised by the earliest fresco-painters, whose productions still remain, in numerous instances, vivid and permanently fresh'. Unfortunately the glue or gum medium used by Blake led to darkening and cracking; in this case tests have shown that Blake used a gum medium, in other words a vegetable-based rather than an animal-based one.

'Moses Indignant at the Golden Calf is an illustration to Exodus, XXXII, 19. Moses, having come down after his forty days on Mount Sinai, protests at the Israelites' idolatrous worship of the Golden Calf, set up by Aaron during his absence; the Tables of the Law, thrown down by Moses in his fury, lie broken at his feet. The striking angular figure of Moses is contrasted with the graceful naked dancers on the left, behind whom stands Aaron. Janet Warner has pointed out that the pose of Moses follows the second part of the description of Indignation given in John Weaver's History of the Mimes and Pantomimes of 1728. As she says, it is not necessary for Blake to have read Weaver; rather, this is an example of the common language of gesture (or 'pathos formulae') used by history painters in the eighteenth century.

It is possible that William Rossetti lists this work a second time as his no.127 (1863, p.225 no.127, and 1880, p.237 no.152), 'The Plague Stayed at the Threshing-floor of Araunah the Jebusite', an otherwise untraced painting (see Butlin 1981, pp.321-2 no.391). The 'gigantic ancient man' and the sky with 'as much red as blue in it' of Rossetti's description would also fit 'Moses Indignant at the Golden Calf'.

What appear to be the tops of the four digits of a date can be seen in front of the signature: from these it is unclear whether the date would be '1799' or '1800', though the former is perhaps slightly more likely.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.9-10

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