William Blake

The Blasphemer


Not on display

William Blake 1757–1827
Ink, graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 384 × 340 mm
frame: 658 × 584 × 23 mm
Bequeathed by Miss Alice G.E. Carthew 1940

Display caption

This powerful watercolour illustrates lines from Leviticus in the Old Testament. It shows the son of an Israelite woman being stoned for blasphemy. God had told Moses that anyone who ‘blasphemeth the name of the Lord... shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him.’

This picture was one of a group of 135 drawings and paintings of biblical subjects by Blake, commissioned by his most loyal patron, Thomas Butts.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

N05195 The Blasphemer c.1800

N 05195 / B 446
Pen and watercolour 381×340 (15×13 5/8)
Signed ‘WB inv’ in monogram b.l.
Bequeathed by Miss Alice G.E. Carthew 1940
PROVENANCE Thomas Butts; Thomas Butts jun., sold Sotheby's 26 March 1852 (149 as ‘The Blasphemer’) £1.19.0 bt Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke, Bt.; his son, sold Christie's 10 April 1911 (125) £48.6.0 bt Miss Carthew
EXHIBITED On loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum 1860; BFAC 1876(76); Carfax 1906 (53); Tate Gallery (8), Manchester (7), Nottingham (5) and Edinburgh (8) 1913–14; Paris and Vienna 1937 (7); British Painting Hamburg, Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen 1949–50 (5); Port Sunlight 1950 (3); Tate Gallery 1978 (164, repr.)
LITERATURE Rossetti 1863, p.224 no.119, and 1880, p.236 no.142; Collins Baker in Huntington Library Quarterly, IV, 1940–1, p.365; Digby 1957, p.51, pl.51; Keynes Bible 1957, p.15 no.48 repr.; Blunt 1959, pp.72–3, 80, pl.36a; Taylor in Blake Studies, 1, 1968–9, pp.63–7, repr. p.65; Tomory Fuseli 1972, p.211; Wilton in British Museum Yearbook, 1, 1976, p.198, pl.234; Bindman 1977, pp.143–4; Klonsky 1977, p.73, repr.; Paley 1978, p.67; Paley in Essick and Pearce 1978, pp.171–2; Butlin 1981, pp.341–2 no.446, pl.520. Also repr: Mizue no.882, 1978, 9, p.25 in colour

This is an illustration to Leviticus, xxiv, 23. The old matt, now replaced, bore an inscription in the copperplate hand (see headnote to this section) giving the title ‘The Blasphemer’ and the text from Leviticus which refers to the story that begins in verses 10 to 16 of the condemnation by Moses to death of the Israelite woman's son for blaspheming the name of the Lord. However, William Rossetti retitled the watercolour ‘The Stoning of Achan’ (Joshua, vii, 1, 18–25) on the grounds that, though ‘the subject might be the “Stoning of the Blasphemer” ..., or even of Stephen ... the figure seems less adapted for the latter: and a peculiar detail - a lurid wreath of smoke above his head, mingled with fire - would indicate the “burning with fire” of all that belonged to Achan’; no burning takes place in the passage from Leviticus. On the other hand Taylor, loc. cit., and John E. Grant and Michael Tolley in verbal communications have supported the original identification given by the early inscription, which was also retained for the 1852 sale and the 1876 and 1913–14 exhibitions. The flames may have been added by Blake to strengthen the symbolism of what is surely a condemnation of the Mosaic law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth; that law was in fact dictated by the Lord to Moses as a result of the Blasphemer's offence (Leviticus, xxiv, 13–22).

Collins Baker has suggested that the Michelangelesque central figure may be derived from Flaxman, while Andrew Wilton traces it back, in more general terms, to the Antique ‘Fallen Warrior’ type as engraved in Stuart's Antiquities of Athens, 1762 (repr. loc. cit. pl.233). This figure reappears in an otherwise different context in a pencil drawing from the Keynes collection now in the Fitzwilliam Museum (Butlin 1981, no.564, pl.801) and in a red chalk drawing in the Fogg Museum (Butlin no.565, pl.802). Blake used this figure again, making the pose still more agonised, on page 25 of Jerusalem, engraved between 1804 and 1818, where the figure appears to be suffering disembowelment; the accompanying text is, significantly, an attack on Vengeance. Tomory compares the head of the Blasphemer to that of Sloth in Fuseli's engraved illustration to Lavater of c.1779 (repr. op. cit. pl.166).

The loan in 1860 to the Victoria and Albert Museum, at that time known as the South Kensington Museum, was reported in the Critic for 14 April 1860: ‘There are also three drawings by that wonderful man William Blake. One is (we suppose) “The High Priests Stoning a Prophet”; the uplifted arms of the former have all that imaginative suggestiveness and rich appeal to the imagination characteristic of this painter’.

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

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