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The Nativity

William Blake, English, 1757 - 1827

Made in England, Europe

1799 or 1800

Tempera on copper

10 3/4 x 15 1/16 inches (27.3 x 38.3 cm)

Curatorial Department:
European Painting

* Gallery 292, European Art 1500-1850, second floor (Haas Gallery)

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
Gift of Mrs. William Thomas Tonner, 1964

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Everything in this small painting emphasizes the miraculous nature of the birth of Jesus. Joseph supports a swooning Mary, while Jesus springs forth from her womb and hovers above the manger. He is received by Mary's cousin, Saint Elizabeth, whose own child, John the Baptist, rests in her lap. A cross glows in the window as if reflected in the light of the star of Bethlehem. The infant Jesus' outstretched arms prefigure his Crucifixion. This painting is one of a series of biblical illustrations that Blake made for Thomas Butts, a clerk in the War Office Department of Mustering and an important supporter of Blake's art.

Additional information:
  • PublicationBritish Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    On August 26, 1799, Blake wrote to George Cumberland, "As to Myself, about whom you are so kindly Interested, I live by Miracle. I am Painting small Pictures from the Bible . . . . My Work pleases my employer, & I have an order for Fifty small Pictures at One Guinea each."1 The employer for whom Blake was working was Thomas Butts, a clerk in the War Office Department of Mustering, living in Fitzroy Square, who may be cited as one of the most imaginative and important patrons of his age for his almost single-handed support of Blake--a man who, in Samuel Palmer's words, "for years stood between...the greatest designer in England & the workhouse."2

    Within Blake's oeuvre, the Butts Bible illustrations of 1799-1800 signify a radical departure from the heroic classicism of the Large Color Prints of 1795 on the one hand and the modified return to that style after 1803 on the other. Moreover, in the Bible pictures Blake attempted to place himself within the mainstream of the European tradition of religious painting--although paradoxically their small format and scale, and the use of copper as the support in several of the illustrations, recall not the conventions of sacred art but Dutch or Italian cabinet pictures, invariably decorative subjects executed for the private collector.3

    In this series, Blake was drawn to emulate both Venetian and Dutch paintings, relying for his effects on strong chiaroscuro and rich, glowing colors. Writing to a potential patron, Rev. John Trusler (1735-1820), on August 16, 1799, while engaged on the Butts commission, Blake referred to himself as "a Scholar of Rembrandt & Teniers, whom I have Studied no less than Rafael & Michael angelo."4

    In a letter to Butts of November 22, 1802, Blake discussed the series he had painted two years previously:
    I have now given two years to the intense study of those parts of the art which relate to light & shade & colour, & am Convinc'd that ... the Pictures which I painted for you Are Equal in Every part of the Art, & superior in One, to any thing that has been done since the age of Rafael....Be assured, My dear Friend, that there is not one touch in those Drawings & Pictures but what came from my Head & my Heart in Unison; That I am Proud of being their Author and Grateful to you my Employer....You will be tempted to think that, as I improve, The Pictures, &c., that I did for you are not what I would now wish them to be. On this I beg to say That they are what I intended them, & that I know I never shall do better; for, if I was to do them over again, they would lose as much as they gain'd, because they were done in the heat of My Spirits.5
    But Blake's estimation of the Butts series changed. In August 1803 he visited the Truchsessian Gallery, an exhibition of old master paintings including a number of works by Northern primitives, an experience that, he wrote, "enlightened [me] with the light I enjoyed in my youth"6 and led to his repudiation of the Venetian and Dutch influences so evident in the Butts Bible series of 1800. In the catalogue of his exhibition of 1809 Blake referred to the Butts works as "experiments" produced as ''the result of temptations and perturbations, labouring to destroy imaginative power, by means of that infernal machine called Chiaro Oscuro, in the hands of Venetian and Flemish Demons...[who] cause that the execution shall be all blocked up with brown shadows."7 And in the same catalogue he wrote, ''The great and golden rule of art, as well as of life, is this: That the more distinct, sharp, and wirey the bounding [boundary] line, the more perfect the work of art."8

    Blake seems to have associated the Butts series with a loss of direction in his own life, a failure of inspiration, which he felt took place in the late 1790s and continued through his three years' "slumber" at Felpham, 1800-1803. One of his biographers, Mona Wilson, points out that the later Lambeth years were years of melancholy and depression manifested by the pessimistic tone of the great prophetic books written at this time.9 In 1804 he began to emerge from his despair: "I have indeed fought thro' a Hell of terrors & horrors ... in a Divided Existence; now no longer Divided, nor at war with myself I shall travel on in the strength of the Lord God."10

    Blake painted the Butts pictures in a medium he called "fresco," a technique by which he hoped to avoid the blurring and darkening process common with oil paints in the eighteenth century, and which he mistakenly believed to be the medium used by the fresco painters of the Italian Renaissance. He used a ground composed of whiting and carpenter's glue applied several times in thin layers. Then he painted in tempera and laid on a mixture of glue and water over the surface.11 Ironically, this method echoed the disastrous technique of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), and particularly in the case of works painted by Blake on copper such as The Nativity, the surface has darkened and cracked.

    The iconography of the Butts Bible series is more traditional and less intensely personal than is usually the case with Blake, though certainly not devoid of uniquely Blakean interpretations of biblical events. The emphasis throughout is on the role of Christ as a loving redeemer, but there does not seem to have been an overall iconographic plan necessitating the choice of subjects.

    The dramatic crux of the series is The Nativity, which, since there is no Annunciation, separates the Old from the New Testament. The unorthodox design is a good example of how Blake infuses into a biblical event his own philosophical gloss. Here the child Jesus is shown as spiritually born in the stable in Bethlehem, leaping forth in ecstasy from Mary’s womb to be received by the exultant Saint Elizabeth with Saint John in her lap. Joseph supports the swooning Mary in a tableau that has no textual source.

    The motif of the leaping Christ child is unique in Western art, but the leaping babe recurs continually in Blake's art and poetry In the poem "lnfant Sorrow" from Songs of Experience, he wrote:
    My mother groand! my father wept.
    Into the dangerous world I leapt:
    Helpless, naked, piping loud;
    Like a fiend hid in a cloud.
    Blake shows the leaping child in other depictions of the infant Jesus, such as in the first illustration to the Butts set of illustrations to Milton's poem "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity,'' The Descent of Peace (c. 1815, pen and watercolor, 6 1/4 x 4 7/8 {15.8 x 12.5 cm}, San Marino, California, Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery), or again, in the same series, the illustration to The Flight of Moloch (c. 1815, pen and watercolor, 6 1/8 x 4 7/8 {15.7 x 12.4 cm}, San Marino, California, Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery), where the Christ child bounds out of Moloch's furnace in both triumph and resurrection.

    The flung-out arms also recall Blake's famous print Albion Rose, also called Glad Day (c. 1795, color printed line engraving, with pen and watercolor, 10 3/4 x 7 7/8 {27.3 x 20 cm.}, London, British Museum), in which the youthful Christ/Albion figure assumes the attitude of the Crucifixion on the one hand and through his gesture symbolizes Dawn driving out Darkness on the other.

    Within his own work, Blake repeats the attitude of Christ in The Nativity in the watercolor The Finding of Moses: The Compassion of Pharaoh’s s Daughter (c. 1805, watercolor, 12 3/4 x 12 5/8” {32.4 x 32 cm.}, London,Victoria and Albert Museum), where Moses leaps forth from the bulrushes like the babe in the manger. Moses, of course, is the Old Testament type for Christ as redeemer and liberator from sin. Blake connects through their poses the figures of Moses and Christ as redeemers in, respectively, the Old and New Testaments. This typological dimension is also stressed in the pose of Mary, who leans back supported by Joseph just as the mother of Moses swoons in Blake's Moses Placed in the Ark of the Bulrushes (1824, pen and watercolor over pencil, 11 3/8 x 15 5/8" {28.9 x 39.7 cm.}, San Marino,California, Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery). Presumably these visual connections were easier to make when all the Butts series hung together, as we assume they did, in one room.

    Moses' mother swoons from grief at the loss of her son, whereas in traditional Nativity scenes Mary is shown as a joyful mother. Bindman (1977) suggests that Blake parallels the grief of Moses' parents, who must leave him unattended in the land of Egypt, with the grief of the parents of Christ at his eventual suffering on earth. Moreover, Mary’s pose, leaning back and supported by Joseph, is actually the traditional pose not of Mary at the Nativity but of Mary at the foot of the cross, fainting into the arms of Saint John. Mary's swoon thus looks backward to the Moses Placed in the Ark of the Bulrushes to prefigure the revelation of Christ at the Nativity and forward to the Crucifixion. Likewise, Christ's exultant leap looks backward to the leap of Moses and forward to the Crucifixion and Resurrection (c. 1805, pen and watercolor, 16 1/2 x 11 7/8" {42 x 30.2 cm.}, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University).

    In the leap of Christ here one also recognizes Blake's Orc, personification or embodiment in the prophetic books of revolutionary energy and the proclaimer of a new order, whose Christian equivalent is Christ the Redeemer. This is most clear in the illustration to Blake's poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, plate 3,12 where Orc is shown actually emerging from Enitharmon's womb in the ecstatic pose of the Christ child in the Butts Nativity. Orc, like his antagonist Urizen, is a type recognizable, whether as an infant or grown man, by his pose-once again the ecstatic pose of Albion Rose.

    The next scene in the series is the Adoration of the Three Kings (1799, pen and tempera on canvas, 10 1/2 x 15" {26.6 x 38.1 cm.}, Brighton, Royal Pavilion, Art Gallery and Museum), which Bindman suggests Blake intended as a pendant to The Nativity. In it the three kings worship at the feet of Christ, but they continue to wear their earthly crowns, and one king bears the unmistakable features of Blake's Urizen, symbol of power and reason, who makes a show of worshiping Christ but retains his primary allegiance to the trappings of the world.

    The Nativity has two light sources, one from the nimbus around Christ, the other from the star of Bethlehem at the window. The usc of the double light source recalls Rembrandt's Adoration of the Shepherds (1646, 25 3/4 x 35 3/8, London, National Gallery), which Blake could have known from a print. But if there are echoes of Rembrandt, the primary spiritual reference is to Fra Angelico (c.1387/1400-1455).There is no direct quotation here from a work by Fra Angelico, but the austerity and simplicity both derive from him. Samuel Palmer wrote that Blake "loved the early Christian art, and dwelt with peculiar affection on the memory of Fra Angelico, often speaking of him as an inspired inventor and as a saint."13

    Richard Dorment, from British Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art: From the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Century (1986), pp. 32-25.

    1. Geoffrey Keynes, ed. The Letters of William Blake with Related Documents. 3rd ed. Oxford, 1980. p. 11.
    2. Palmer to William Abercrombie, February 5, 1881, in Keynes, ed., The Letters of William Blake with Related Documents. 3rd ed. Oxford,1980, p. 179.
    3. David Bindman, Blake as an Artist Oxford, 1977. pp. 125-26.
    4. Geoffrey Keynes, ed. The Letters of William Blake with Related Documents. 3rd ed. Oxford, 1980, p. 8.
    5. Ibid., pp. 40-42
    6. Blake to William Hayley, October 23, 1804 in Keynes, ed .The Letters of William Blake with Related Documents. 3rd ed. Oxford,, 1980, p.101
    7. London, 28 Broad Street. A Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures, Poetical and Historical Inventions, Painted by William Blake in Water Colours, Being the Ancient Method of Fresco Painting Restored; and Drawings, for Public Inspection, and for Sale by Private Contract, May 1809-c. June 1810. p. 55
    8. Ibid., 63-64.
    9. Mona Wilson. The Life of William Blake. 4th ed. London, Toronto, Sydney, and New York, 1978, p. 143.
    10. Blake to Hayley, December 4, 1804, in Keynes, ed., The Letters of William Blake with Related Documents. 3rd ed. Oxford, 1980, p. 104.
    11. G. E. Bentley, Jr., ed. Blake Records. Oxford, 1969, p. 33 .
    12. David Bindman,Blake as an Artist. Oxford, 1977, fig. 53.
    13. Palmer to Gilchrist, August 3, 1855, in Keynes, ed., The Letters of William Blake with Related Documents. 3rd ed. Oxford, 1980, p. 176.

    William Michael Rossetti, in Alexander Gilchrist, Life of William Blake, "Pictor Ignotes," with Selections from His Poems and Other Writings. 2 vols. London and Cambridge, 1863. [with an annotated catalogue of Blake's paintings and drawings by William Michael Rossetti] , vol. 2, p. 225, no. 133, p. 255, list 3, no. 7; William Michael Rossetti, in Alexander Gilchrist, Life of William Blake with Selections from His Poems and Other Writings. 2nd ed., rev. and enl. (London,1880), vol. 2, p. 238, no. 159, p. 275 list 3, no. 7; William Bell Scott. William Blake: Etchings from His Works. (London, 1878), pp. 4, 6, pl. IV; Irene Langridge, William Blake: A Study of His Life and Work. (London, 1904), pp. 162-3 (W. B. Scott etching after Blake repro. between pp. 162-63); Roger E. Fry. ''Three Pictures in Tempera by William Blake." The Burlington Magazine, vol. 4, no. 12 (March 1904), p. 206, repro. p. 211; W. Graham Robertson, "Supplementary List" [to Rossetti's "Annotated Catalogue"] in Alexander Gilchrist, Life of William Blake. (London, 1907), p. 446, no. 133; Laurence Binyon, The Drawings and Engravings of William Blake (London, 1922), pl. 14; Darrell Figgis, The Paintings of William Blake (London, 1925), pl. 39; Geoffrey Keynes, William Blake’s Illustrations to the Bible (Clairvaux, 1957), pl. 91 opp. p. 26, p. 26, cat. 91; Anthony Blunt. The Art of William Blake (New York and London, 1959) p. 67, pl. 35b; Kathleen Raine, William Blake (London, 1970), p.122, fig. 89; Geoffrey Keynes, Blake Studies, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1971), p. 156; Martin Butlin, "The Blake Collection of Mrs. William T. Tonner,” Bulletin, Philadelphia Museum of Art, vol. 67, no. 307 (July-September 1972), pp. 16-18, pl. 1; Jean H. Hagstrum, ''Christ's Body," in Morton D. Paley and Michael Phillips, eds., William Blake: Essays in Honour of Sir Geoffrey Keynes (Oxford, 1973), p. 145, n. 26; David Bindman. Blake as an Artist. Oxford, 1977., pp. 121-22, 126, 128, 193-94, pl. 111; Milton Klondsky, William Blake: The Seer and His Visions (London, 1977), p. 69, repro. p. 69; Morton D. Paley. William Blake. Oxford, 1978, p. 54; Martin Butlin, The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake (New Haven and London, 1981 ), vol. 1, no. 401, pp. 324-25, 393, no. 541 I, vol. 2, pl. 502.

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