Visionary and nonconformist William Blake (1757-1827) is a singular figure in the history of Western art and literature: a poet, painter, and printmaker. Ambitiously creative, Blake had an abiding interest in theology and philosophy, which, during the age of revolution, inspired thoroughly original and personal investigations into the state of man and his soul. In his lifetime Blake was best known as an engraver; he was later recognized for his innovations across many other disciplines.
In the Morgan’s first exhibition devoted to Blake in two decades, former director Charles Ryskamp and curators Anna Lou Ashby and Cara Denison have assembled many of Blake’s most spectacular watercolors, prints, and illuminated books of poetry to dramatically underscore his genius and enduring influence. A New Heaven Is Begun, the subtitle is a quote from Blake referring to the significance of his date of birth.
The show includes more than 100 works and among the many highlights are two major series of watercolors, rarely displayed in their entirety. The 21 watercolors for Blake’s seminal illustrations for the Book of Job — considered one of his greatest works and revealing his personal engagement with biblical texts — were created about 1805-10. Also on view are twelve drawings illustrating John Milton’s poems L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, executed about 1816-20. Both series were undertaken for Blake’s principal patron, Thomas Butts.
“The name William Blake means different things to different people,” said William M. Griswold, director of the Morgan. “Engraver, painter, poet, visionary — all apply to Blake, and all are accurate. The Morgan is fortunate to have one of the most important collections of Blake material in the world, and this exhibition provides an opportunity to see his extraordinary creativity across many disciplines.”
The son of a London haberdasher and a religious dissenter, Blake studied the Bible privately with his family. He was educated at home and well read as an adult. This intellectual curiosity was coupled with a keen perception of the political and social world, finding expression in his artistic independence as well as the complex mythology he constructed in response to the age of revolution in which he lived. This mythology centered around the figure of “Urizen,” an authoritarian, kinglike figure who represents rulers both sacred and profane, with whom other characters representing independence and artistic creativity must interact.
Blake was trained as an engraver. His skill was often applied to reproducing designs of his fellow students and teachers at the Royal Academy. Blake engraved his own works as well, and painted for Academy shows, wrote poetry, and engraved illustrations for books issued by the radical publisher Joseph Johnson. He was also active within the Soho/Covent Garden artistic community. Although Blake explored many artistic disciplines, he continued to work throughout his life in the medium for which he was trained, engraving.
As a result of a dream conversation with his dead brother Robert in 1787, Blake developed a new method of engraving relief plates. By using a special coating for copper plates, he was able to combine reverse script with illustrative details. With this inventive technique, he created Songs of Innocence in 1789 and embarked on a major productive period that saw the creation of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790), Visions of the Daughter of Albion (1793), Continental Prophecies: America (1793), Europe (1794), and the Song of Los (1795). While living in Lambeth in the 1790s — across the river but still within walking distance of the artistic and literary center of London — he created small runs of the illuminated books, which were printed on speculation or for a few patrons.
In addition to the superlative watercolor series — 21 illustrations to the Book of Job and 12 designs illustrating Milton’s L’Allegro and Il Penseroso — other important drawings are on display, including Fire (ca. 1805), which addresses the subject of war. The more fully expressed Continental Prophecies, a series of three illuminated books, further showcase Blake’s talents as a visual artist and his passionate interest in politics.
Blake’s fame as a poet is seen in his fair copy of ballads known as The Pickering Manuscript, named after its early owner and publisher. Giving voice to Blake’s well-known poem Auguries of Innocence, found in the manuscript, is the actor Jeremy Irons, who has also recorded the shorter poem, Tyger. These can be heard on a gallery listening station and on the Morgan’s Web site.
Blake supported himself with his engravings, and a selection of his prints — many of which are extremely rare impressions — documents this important aspect of his production. A magnificent example of Blake’s largest print, touched with watercolor by the artist, depicts Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims. With this work the artist hoped for commercial success, something he was unable to secure in his lifetime.
Among Blake’s crowning achievements as a visual artist and poet are his illuminated books, such as Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul (ca. 1794). These works, which also showcase his exceptional technical skills, reflect medieval manuscript illumination and the interrelationship between word and image. Also on view is the only dated copy of Blake’s dramatic The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Shedding light on the artistic milieu surrounding Blake are a number of works by friends and contemporaries, including drawings by younger artists such as John Linnell (1792-1882) and members of a group that assembled around Blake and called themselves the Ancients. Also represented are works by painters such as Samuel Palmer (1805-1881) and Henry Fuseli (1741-1825).
The Morgan Library & Museum’s Blake collection — one of this country’s most distinguished — began with purchases as early as 1899 by the institution’s founder, Pierpont Morgan. The exhibition is a tribute to the scholarship and generosity of Charles Ryskamp, director of the Morgan from 1969 to 1986. During his tenure, major gifts almost doubled the size of the Blake collection; and in recent years his gifts of engravings, letters, and related materials have augmented the holdings as a major source for research.
The life and art of one of opera’s iconic figures, composer Giacomo Puccini, are celebrated on the 150th anniversary (2008-09) of Puccini’s birth in Lucca, Italy, on December 22, 1858. On view are approximately 40 items related to Puccini’s career, including rarely seen original sketches for his acclaimed operas Madama Butterfly and La Bohème.
In addition to original manuscripts, the exhibition also includes a display of first-edition librettos, personal letters, a period poster and playbills, souvenir postcards, and rare material linked to Puccini’s relationship with such legends as Enrico Caruso and Arturo Toscanini. The exhibition is drawn almost exclusively from the Morgan’s extensive music holdings, including the Cary, Heineman, and Fuld collections, as well as the Robert Owen Lehman Collection, which is on deposit at the Morgan.
“The Morgan is delighted to bring to life this major figure in operatic history,” said William M. Griswold, director of the Morgan. “So many of Puccini’s compositions have become part of the opera canon that we may now know the work as well as or better than the artist who created it. To see original manuscripts for Madama Butterfly and La Bohème is truly thrilling. And to learn about the arc of Puccini’s triumphant career is equally inspiring.”
Visitors have the rare opportunity to view manuscripts for five Puccini works: Le Villi, Edgar, La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, and La Fanciulla del West. A display of first-edition librettos constitutes a chronology of Puccini’s operatic output, augmented by information about premieres, casts, and first performances in cities throughout the world during the composer’s lifetime.
The last in a line of five generations of organists and composers, Puccini, inspired by a performance of Verdi’s Aida, decided to pursue an operatic career. After graduating from the Milan Conservatory, he wrote his first opera, Le Villi. The work attracted the attention of Giulio Ricordi, Italy’s preeminent publisher, who acquired the rights to the work and also commissioned the composer’s next opera, Edgar. Although Edgar was not a success, Ricordi continued his support, enabling Puccini to realize his ambition.
A letter dated December 16, 1884 from Ricordi to soprano Romilda Pantaleoni documents the high regard Ricordi had for Puccini’s work as well as his efforts to promote his music. Also on view is a telegram sent by Ricordi the morning after the premiere of La Bohème, attesting to his enthusiastic response.
Adolf Hohenstein’s vivid poster for the original production of La Bohème and a playbill for the world premiere of Turandot are on view. Also featured are souvenir postcards, designed by Hohenstein’s pupil Leopoldo Metlicovitz, for Tosca, along with a commemorative postcard, marking the opera’s premiere at Rome’s Teatro Costanzi and inscribed with comments about the performance.
Puccini met tenor Enrico Caruso in 1897 and is reported to have said, “Who sent you to me? God?” On display is Caruso’s signed receipt for his compensation for performances at Covent Garden in La Bohème and Tosca in June 1907. Also on view is a silk program from the gala performance on June 11, 1907 commemorating the visit of the king and queen of Denmark to England in which Caruso sang excerpts from Madama Butterfly and La Bohème. Puccini, in London at the time, probably attended.
The stormy relationship between Puccini and Arturo Toscanini (who conducted the world premieres of La Bohème and Fanciulla, and after Puccini’s death, Turandot) is revealed in letters from Puccini.
The Morgan Library & Museum houses one of the finest collections of music manuscripts in the country. In addition to a large collection of musicians’ letters and first editions of scores and librettos, it has the world’s largest collection of Mahler manuscripts and substantial holdings of Brahms, Chopin, Debussy, Mozart, Schubert, and Richard Strauss. The collection spans six centuries and many countries. The Morgan’s holdings of material relating to the lives and works of the dramatist William S. Gilbert and the composer Arthur S. Sullivan form the most extensive archive of its kind in the world.
Although Pierpont Morgan is not on record as evincing any notable interest in music, he did make two important purchases: the two earliest dated letters of the 13-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the manuscript of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Sonata no. 10, op. 96, in G Major.
The Morgan’s music collection is the result of the generosity of several donors and lenders. In 1962 the Dannie and Hettie Heineman Collection, a small but exceedingly well-chosen selection of music manuscripts, was placed on deposit and then formally given to the Morgan in 1977. In 1968 the institution became a major repository of music manuscripts with the donation of Mary Flagler Cary’s extraordinary collection of manuscripts, letters, and printed scores. In 1972 Robert Owen Lehman put on deposit his collection of manuscript scores, the greatest private collection of its kind. In 2008 the Morgan acquired the James Fuld Collection, by all accounts the finest private collection of printed music in the world.
Celebrating Puccini is organized by Frances Barulich, Mary Flagler Cary Curator and Department Head of Music Manuscripts and Printed Music at The Morgan Library & Museum.