William Blake

The Death of the Virgin


Not on display

William Blake 1757–1827
Watercolour on paper
Support: 378 × 371 mm
frame: 657 × 630 × 45 mm
Presented by the executors of W. Graham Robertson through the Art Fund 1949

Display caption

This is one of many watercolours Blake made for his most important patron, Thomas Butts. It was painted during Blake's stay in Felpham, Sussex when, in his own words, he put himself 'back as if I was a learner' and gave 'two years to the intense study of... light & shade & colour.' By comparing this work with the earlier temperas Blake painted for Butts, some of which are shown in this room, we can get an idea of the improvements Blake was aiming at in his art: a renewed power of design (seen in the symmetrical composition with its energetic, flowing outlines), dark shadows rejected in favour of more uniformity between light and shade, and greater radiance in his colours.

Gallery label, August 2004

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry

N05899 The Death of the Virgin 1803

N 05899 / B 512
Watercolour 378×371 (14 7/8×14 5/8)

Signed ‘WB inv [in monogram] 1803’ b.r.
Presented by the Executors of W. Graham Robertson through the National Art-Collections Fund 1949
PROVENANCE Thomas Butts; Thomas Butts jun.; Capt. F.J. Butts; his widow, sold April 1906 through Carfax to W. Graham Robertson, offered Christie's 22 July 1949 (42) £1,050 bt his executors
EXHIBITED BFAC 1876 (216); Carfax 1906 (46); Cambridge 1910; Century of Art, Grafton Galleries 1911 (126); Tate Gallery (37), Manchester (38), Nottingham (27) and Edinburgh (23) 1913–14; on loan to Tate Gallery 1923–7; BFAC 1927 (35); English Water-Colour Paintings, Institute of Art Research, Ueno, Tokyo, October 1929 (pl.21); Whitechapel 1934 (57); Paris, Antwerp, Zurich and Tate Gallery 1947 (24); Bournemouth, Southampton and Brighton 1949 (34); Whitworth 1969 (38, repr.)
LITERATURE Rossetti 1863, p.206 no.42, and 1880, p.213 no.46; Preston 1952, pp.66–7 no.16, pl.16; Keynes Bible 1957, p.50 no.173 repr.; Keynes Writings 1957, p.824; Keynes Letters 1968, p.68; Raine 1968, 1, p.413 n.37; Bentley Blake Records 1969, pp.570–1; Gage in Warburg Journal, XXXIV, 1971, p.375; Mellor 1974, pp.193–4, pl.55; Bindman 1977, pp.137–8; Butlin 1981, p.366 no.512, pl.611

Blake, in a letter to Thomas Butts of 6 July 1803, wrote that this watercolour and six others were ‘now on Stocks... They are all in great forwardness and I am satisfied that I improve very much & shall continue to do so while I live’. One of the other works mentioned in this letter is the companion watercolour of ‘The Death of St. Joseph’, also signed and dated 1803 (Butlin 1981, no.511, pl.610). On 16 August 1803 Blake sent Butts these two drawings together with five others, presumably the same as those listed in the letter of 6 July.

According to William Rossetti ‘The Death of the Virgin’ was inscribed ‘Then saith He to the Disciple, “Behold thy Mother!” and from that hour that Disciple took her unto his own home’ (John, xix, 27; see N05895), while ‘The Death of St. Joseph’ was inscribed ‘Into Thine hand I commend my spirit; Thou hast redeemed me, O Lord God of Truth’ (partly taken from Luke, xxiii, 46). No such inscriptions can be seen today but they may have been the usual copperplate inscriptions on the mounts.

Kathleen Raine has suggested that Blake took the symbolism of the rainbow in the two companion watercolours from Jacob Boehme's Mysterium Magnum (ch. 33, paras. 28–31) as ‘a Figure of the last Judgment, showing how the inward spiritual World will again manifest itself and swallow up into itself this outward World of four elements’. In this connection John Gage's suggestion that Blake deliberately reversed the Newtonian order of the colours of the rainbow in his works of 1804 onwards may perhaps be significant.

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

You might like

In the shop