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Illustrations to Dante's "Divine Comedy"

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Illustrations to Dante's "Divine Comedy", 1824-27 ( Multiple [7] Owners): electronic edition [preview]

Dates are the probable dates of composition.

Blake's 102 drawings illustrating Dante's Divine Comedy were commissioned by John Linnell, the chief patron of Blake's final years. Although Linnell did not begin to pay for the designs until December 1825, at the rate of about 1 pound a week, Blake probably began work on the drawings by the fall of 1824. They were left at Blake's death in 1827 in various stages of completion, ranging from pencil sketches to highly finished water colors. Most show an expressive freedom in the handling of color washes far greater than Blake's earlier water colors. In 1826, Blake began to engrave large plates based on 7 of the designs; these were also left incomplete at his death. The water colors remained in Linnell's collection and estate until their sale at auction in 1918. Through a scheme organized by the National Art-Collections Fund, they were dispersed among 7 participating institutions: the Ashmolean Museum, Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, the British Museum, the Fogg Art Museum, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Royal Institution of Cornwall, and the Tate Collection.

As we generally find with Blake's illustrations to the works of other writers, he has paid close attention to the details of Dante's poem. Yet, while faithful to the text, Blake also brings his own perspective to bear on some of Dante's central themes, including sin, guilt, punishment, revenge, and salvation. In several designs, Blake's pictorial imagery, particularly when associated with similar motifs in his illuminated books and their iconography, indicates a critical attitude towards Dante. This interpretation of the illustrations is buttressed by Blake's verbal criticisms of Dante found in his c. 1800 annotations to Henry Boyd's translation of The Inferno, his conversations with Henry Crabb Robinson in 1825, and his inscriptions on the rectos of a few of the Dante designs themselves. But harsh criticism coexists with many signs of intellectual sympathy in the illustrations.

We have recorded in the Editors' Notes the inscriptions on the versos of the designs. None of these is attributable to Blake; some probably represent at least 2 attempts to organize the designs into their proper sequence. The arrangement of images given here accords with our understanding of the sequence of passages illustrated and varies at several junctures from Butlin's ordering.

Related Works

Related works currently available in the William Blake Archive appear as links below. Works not currently available appear as plain text.

  • Ugolino: "Does Thy God, O Priest, Take Such Vengeance as This?"
    Wash drawing, c. 1780-85. Butlin 208.
    Kunsthalle
    Hamburg, Germany
  • Ugolino in Prison (recto); Head of a Man and Small Head of Ugolino (verso)
    Pencil sketches, c. 1780-85. Butlin 207.
    Victoria and Albert Museum
    London
  • Blake's Notebook, page 59
    Pencil sketch, c. 1790-93. Butlin 201.59.
    British Library
    London
  • "Is All Joy Forbidden," Possibly for "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell"
    Pencil sketch, c. 1790-93. Butlin 222.
    British Museum
    London
  • Small Book of Designs, copy A, plate 4 (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, plate 16)
    Relief etching, color printed without the text, printed 1796. Bentley 136, plate 4.
    British Museum
    London
  • Annotations to Dante's Inferno, translated by Henry Boyd, 1785
    Ink and pencil annotations, c. 1800. Bentley 721, Erdman pages 633-35.
    Cambridge University Library
    Cambridge, England
  • Dante in the Heads of the Poets series of paintings
    Tempera painting, c. 1800-03. Butlin 343.4.
    City of Manchester Art Galleries
    Manchester, England
  • Called "Capaneus, from Dante (?)"
    Pencil sketch, c. 1820-25. Butlin 791.
    Untraced
  • An Angel Taking a Huge Stride in the Air Among Stars: Possible Sketch for "The Angel Crossing the Styx" or "The Angel Descending at the Close of the Circle of the Proud," Butlin 812.19 and Butlin 812.82
    Pencil sketch, c. 1824-27 (?). Butlin 820 recto.
    Victoria and Albert Museum
    London
  • The Circle of the Lustful, possibly related to Butlin 812.10
    Water color, c. 1824-27 (?). Butlin 817 recto.
    Untraced
  • Composition Sketch, Possibly a Subject from Dante
    Pencil sketch, c. 1824-27 (?). Butlin 826 recto.
    Tate Collection at Tate Britain
    London
  • A Devil Holding a Sword, Possibly for "The Schismatics and Sowers of Discord" or for "Job" Plate 4, possibly related to Butlin 812.57
    Pencil sketch, c. 1824-27 (?). Butlin 824.
    Fitzwilliam Museum
    Cambridge, England
  • Faint Study for "The Complaint of the Giant Nimrod," Butlin 812.61 recto
    Pencil and chalk drawing, c. 1824-27. Butlin 812.61 verso.
    Fogg Art Museum
    Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • Head of a Cardinal, possibly related to Butlin 812.67
    Pencil sketch, c. 1824-27. Butlin 812.66 verso.
    Fogg Art Museum
    Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • Paolo and Francesca (?), possibly related to Butlin 812.10
    Pencil sketch, c. 1824-27. Butlin 816.
    Maurice Sendak
  • Possible Sketch for "The Devils Under the Bridge," Butlin 812.34
    Chalk drawing, c. 1824-27. Butlin 812.22 verso.
    Fogg Art Museum
    Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • Possible Sketch of Hills, possibly for one of the Dante water colors
    Pencil sketch, c. 1824-27. Butlin 812.49 verso.
    National Gallery of Victoria
    Melbourne, Australia
  • Sketch for "The Angel Crossing the Styx," Butlin 812.19
    Pencil sketch, c. 1824-27. Butlin 819.
    Fitzwilliam Museum
    Cambridge, England
  • Sketch for "Brunelleschi Half Transformed by the Serpent," Butlin 812.52 recto
    Pencil sketch, c. 1824-27. Butlin 823.
    Art Institute of Chicago
    Chicago, Illinois
  • Sketch for "The Circle of the Gluttons with Cerberus," Butlin 812.11 (recto); Sketch for "Cerberus," Butlin 812.13 (verso)
    Pencil sketches, c. 1824-27. Butlin 818.
    Private Collection
    Great Britain
  • Sketch for "Dante at the Moment of Entering the Fire," Butlin 812.85
    Pencil sketch, c. 1824-27. Butlin 825.
    British Museum
    London
  • Sketch for "Minos," Butlin 812.9. Possibly a copy by a member of the Linnell family
    Chalk and pencil drawing, c. 1824-27. Butlin 814 recto.
    Private Collection
    Great Britain
  • Sketch for "The Mission of Virgil," Butlin 812.3 (recto); Sketch for "Minos," Butlin 812.9 (verso)
    Pencil sketches, c. 1824-27. Butlin 813.
    British Museum
    London
  • Sketch for "The Serpent Attacking Agnolo Brunelleschi," Butlin 812.51 (recto); Two Further Dante Sketches (verso)
    Pencil sketch, c. 1824-27. Butlin 821.
    Fondazione Horne
    Florence, Italy
  • Sketch for "The Six-Footed Serpent Attacking Agnolo Brunelleschi"(?), Butlin 812.51 recto
    Chalk drawing, c. 1824-27. Butlin 812.18 verso.
    Fogg Art Museum
    Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • Sketch for "St. Peter, St. James, Dante and Beatrice with St. John Also," Butlin 812.96
    Pencil sketch, c. 1824-27. Butlin 812.45 verso.
    British Museum
    London
  • Sketch for "The Vestibule of Hell and the Souls Mustering to Cross the Acheron," Butlin 812.5 (recto); Sketch for "Dante and Virgil on the Brink of Limbo," a subject not present in the water color series (verso)
    Pencil sketches, c. 1824-27. Butlin 815.
    British Museum
    London
  • Sketch of a Head, possibly for one of the Dante water colors
    Chalk drawing, c. 1824-27. Butlin 812.51 verso.
    National Gallery of Victoria
    Melbourne, Australia
  • Sketch of a Man with a Transparent Hood (?) Over His Head, possibly for Butlin 812.44 recto
    Pencil sketch, c. 1824-27. Butlin 812.53 verso.
    Tate Collection at Tate Britain
    London
  • Sketch of Rocks, possibly for Butlin 812.46
    Chalk or pencil drawing, c. 1824-27. Butlin 812.43 verso.
    Fogg Art Museum
    Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • Sketch of a Stooping Figure, possibly for Butlin 812.44 recto
    Pencil sketch, c. 1824-27. Butlin 812.44 verso.
    Tate Collection at Tate Britain
    London
  • Slight Sketch for "Cacus," Butlin 812.50
    Chalk or pencil drawing, c. 1824-27. Butlin 812.39 verso.
    National Gallery of Victoria
    Melbourne, Australia
  • Slight Sketch for "The Goddess of Fortune"(?), Butlin 812.16
    Chalk drawing, c. 1824-27. Butlin 812.28 verso.
    National Gallery of Victoria
    Melbourne, Australia
  • Slight Sketch for "The Necromancers and Augers"(?), Butlin 812.36
    Chalk drawing, c. 1824-27. Butlin 812.73 verso.
    National Gallery of Victoria
    Melbourne, Australia
  • Slight Sketch, Perhaps for "The Mountain Leading to Purgatory," Butlin 812.73 recto, or, less likely, The Ascent of the Mountain of Purgatory, Butlin 812.74
    Pencil sketch, c. 1824-27. Butlin 812.59 verso.
    National Gallery of Victoria
    Melbourne, Australia
  • Slight Sketch, Perhaps for "Virgil Abashing the Devils," Butlin 812.38
    Chalk drawing, c. 1824-27. Butlin 812.69 verso.
    National Gallery of Victoria
    Melbourne, Australia
  • Slight Sketch, Perhaps for "The Whirlwind of Lovers," Butlin 812.10
    Pencil sketch, c. 1824-27. Butlin 812.56 verso.
    National Gallery of Victoria
    London
  • Slight Sketch, Perhaps of Hills, possibly for one of the Dante water colors
    Chalk drawing, c. 1824-27. Butlin 812.20 verso.
    National Gallery of Victoria
    Melbourne, Australia
  • Slight Sketch, Possibly for "The Laborious Passage Along the Rocks," Butlin 812.45 recto
    Pencil and wash drawing, c. 1824-27. Butlin 812.19 verso.
    National Gallery of Victoria
    Melbourne, Australia
  • Two Bands of Figures, possibly related to the Dante water colors
    Pencil sketch, c. 1824-27. Butlin 812.90 verso.
    National Gallery of Victoria
    Melbourne, Australia
  • Two Heads, possibly related to Butlin 812.21
    Pencil sketch, c. 1824-27. Butlin 812.101 verso.
    British Museum
    London
  • Count Ugolino and His Sons in Prison
    Tempera painting, c. 1826. Butlin 970.
    Keynes Family Trust, on deposit at Fitzwilliam Museum
    Cambridge, England
  • Sketch for the Engraving of "The Six-Footed Serpent Attacking Agnolo Brunelleschi" (recto); Sketch of a Woman, possibly related to Butlin 812.88 (verso)
    Pencil sketches, c. 1826-27. Butlin 822.
    Huntington Library and Art Gallery
    San Marino, California
  • A Composition with Numerous Figures, Perhaps for "Dante"
    Pencil sketch, date unknown. Butlin 874 recto.
    Untraced
  • Blake's Illustrations of Dante
    The seven original copperplates, 1826-27. Bentley 448.
    National Gallery of Art
    Washington, DC