William Blake was a well-known poet and painter during the Romantic period. While misunderstood during his lifetime, Blake finally received credit for his impact on the arts far after his death. William Blake was said to be “opinionated, questioning, rebellious and sometimes obdurate and saucy” (Barker). In his time, Blake was seen as eccentric and some viewed him as a madman. Because of this he was educated at home by his mother. He began his artistic career early and at the age of 10 enrolled at Henry Par’s drawing school. He studied engraving and was enthralled by the classical style of High Renaissance and collected prints from Durer, Raphael and Michelangelo. Throughout his career, Blake was commissioned to make many engravings as well as to paint watercolors. It is said that William Blake hated oils, the popular medium at the time, which is why he chose watercolor instead (“47 Paintings…). He also chose to use myths as his subject of work in order to “illustrate his mystical view of the universe” (“47 Paintings…”).
Blake painted the portrait of Thomas Otway in 1800 on canvas using tempera. Thomas Otway was a dramatist during the Restoration Period of England and William Blake may have chosen to paint Otway because of his attraction to the drama and fantasy involved in plays, although not much is known about this portrait. What’s intriguing about this portrait, in my opinion, is the facial expression Thomas Otway has. He is inviting the audience to look at him, but looking past the viewer at the same time. It is as if he is dreaming of something by the resting of the head on the hand and the slight upturn of a smile. What’s also interesting is the scene happening in the foreground. The man is posed to hit the woman and the woman is shielding her face. From my guess, this is probably a scene from one of Otway’s plays. This also adds to the intrigue of Otway’s facial expression because it seems as though he is watching one of his own plays happening before him. The drama and moodiness of this portrait plays on the elements of Romanticism, so while this portrait has elements of antiquity (looking at the background and color choice), it also fits into the period in which it was created. I also appreciate how the painting is sketchy and monochromatic while still showing depth and tonal changes.
While William Blake is appreciated more now than he was when he was alive, he followed the beat of his own drum and created great works of art. His interest in the classical style is evident in most of his paintings and engravings which is unique to find during this time period. But he also uses smooth, wispy brushstrokes in his paintings which was popular during this time. What can be most appreciated about Blake is the confidence he had to do what he wanted and create pieces of work that allow viewers into a mystical world of his own creation.
Barker, Elizabeth E. . “William Blake (1757–1827)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/blke/hd_blke.htm (October 2004)
“47 Paintings by William Blake.” BBC News. BBC, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2014.
For a more detailed look into William Blake check out this article from Khan Academy