William Blake • Drawings and illustrations, 1805, 46×60 cm
Digital copy: 313.4 kB
1504 × 1159 px • JPEG
46 × 35.3 cm • 83 dpi
25.5 × 19.6 cm • 150 dpi
12.7 × 9.8 cm • 300 dpi
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About the artwork
Subject and objects: Portrait, Genre scene
Style of art: Romanticism
Technique: Watercolor, Ink, Print
Materials: Paper
Date of creation: 1805
Size: 46×60 cm
Artwork in selections: 27 selections
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Exhibitions history
William Blake. Painter
September 11, 2019 − February 2, 2020
Tate Britain, Milbank

Description of the artwork «Newton»

Newton is a monotype William Blake, first completed in 1795, but reworked and reprinted in 1805. It is one of the 12 Large Colour Prints or Large Colour Printed Drawings created between 1795 and 1805, which also include his series of images on the biblical ruler Nebuchadnezzar.

Blake's opposition to the Enlightenment was deeply rooted, since the artist believed that "Art is the Tree of Life. Science is the Tree of Death". Newton's theory of optics was especially offensive to Blake, who made a clear distinction between the vision of the "vegetative eye" and spiritual vision. The Deistic philosophy, recognizing God as a distant creator, but denying supernatural and mystical revelations, was anathema to Blake. He claimed to regularly experience visions of a spiritual nature. He contrasts his "four-fold vision" to the "single vision" of Newton, whose "natural religion" of scientific materialism he characterized as sterile. Newton was incorporated into Blake's infernal trinity along with the philosophers Francis Bacon and John Locke.

In this watercolour-finished print we can see Blake of necessity adopting a symbolic or satiric camouflage, a device with which he concealed his fiercely critical intent. The first thing which we notice about Blake’s Newton is that, as in the artist’s depiction of a two-eyed and two-handed Nelson taming the Leviathan, a literal resemblance is neither apparent nor intended. What's portrayed by Blake is an idealised essence, an idea-form of Newton.

The scientist is shown sitting naked and crouched on a rocky outcropping covered with algae, apparently at the bottom of the sea. His attention is focused upon diagrams he draws with a compass upon a scroll that is made from the white drape hanging redundant over his left shoulder and denoting a celestial nature. His paradise is a world of pure geometry without life difficulties. He is so absorbed in his work that doesn't even notice the beauty of nature behind his back. Blake expresses his contempt for the flattering worship of Newton, which is embodied in the epitaph by Alexander Pope:

"Nature and Nature's laws
Lay hid in night:
God said, Let Newton be!
and all was light."

Blake’s satire lies in the fact that Newton crouched above his calculations, sitting on the chill bench that has the distinct appearance of a bidet or commode. Enthroned, a god of knowledge showers his pearls of wisdom on the species through a process of mere peristalsis, heedless of the fact that mankind’s dream-life is thus rendered a materialist latrine.

It should be noted that Newton – and very few of his contemporaries knew about it – spent about 30 years of his life conducting alchemical research. It was only in 1936 when it became known about the existence of his huge manuscript archive concerning alchemy and religion. Those papers include many rewritten prayers for the bestowal of the philosopher's stone, promises not to use it for his own enrichment and to protect the secret from sinners. Historians and biographers do not have a unanimous opinion about the reasons the scientist engaged in such experiments.

Blake's Large Colour Prints were a series of colour prints, including Newton, which were painted on millboard, after which the board was put through the printing-press with a sheet of dampened paper to make the prints. Such prints unusually have no accompanying text, but Blake's series seem to have been conceived in contrasting pairs. In this case, Newton, as suggested by art historians, is the opposite of Nebuchadnezzar. Blake saw Newton as the symbol of the repression of the Imagination and the creative, artistic spirit by reason while his Nebuchadnezzar, whom God turned into an animal for unbelief and pride, symbolizes the man who has become a slave to the senses. Pure sensuality, like pure reason, is seen by the artist as antipathetic to Imagination.

In 1995, Blake's print served as the basis for Eduardo Paolozzi's (a Scottish sculptor of Italian descent) bronze sculpture Newton, which resides in the piazza of the British Library.

Author: Vlad Maslov