In 1826, at age 65, Blake received a commission to illustrate Dante’s Divine Comedy thanks to John Linnell — a young artist he had befriended, who shared with Blake a defiance of modern trends and a belief in a spiritualism as an artistic foundation for the New Age. Blake was drawn to the project because, despite the five centuries that separated them, he resonated with Dante’s contempt for materialism and the way power warps morality — the opportunity to represent these ideas pictorially no doubt sang to him.
Alas, Blake died several months later, leaving the project uncompleted — but he had worked feverishly through his excruciating gallbladder attacks to produce 102 drawings, ranging from basic sketches to fully developed watercolors, literally working on the project on his dying day. Linnell, who had paid £130 for the drawings, lent Blake’s wife money for the artist’s funeral, which took place on their 45th wedding anniversary.
The Divine Comedy drawings were never published, but remained in Linnell’s possession. In 1913, more than thirty years after his death, Linnell’s family lent them to the Tate Gallery in London for a retrospective of Blake’s work. Five years later, they sold the paintings at an auction, inevitably scattering them across galleries in England, Australia, and the United States.
Fortunately, all 102 plates are reproduced and collected in the magnificent volume William Blake’s Divine Comedy Illustrations (public library), where Blake’s transcendent capacity for reconciling the sinister and the sublime springs to luminous life once more.