One of the last series William Blake completed was on the woes of Job, that biblical figure tormented through a bet between God and Satan that his faith was tenuous. Blake, who never achieved much financial success and found it a struggle to keep up his own adherence to his art, may have seen Job as a kindred spirit. Whatever the reasons for his intense work in transforming the story to visuals, the series of 21 engravings from 1825 represents the height of Blake’s print work.
The whole narrative is included in Dürer, Rembrandt, Tiepolo: The Jansma Master Prints Collection from the Grand Rapids Art Museum now on view at the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA) in Manhattan. While the exhibition spans five centuries — with the Grand Rapids Art Museum’s Jansma Print Collection as its focal point — Blake’s work is surprisingly harmonious with the style of Albrecht Dürer and others who came before him. This love for the densely hatched engravings of the 16th and 17th centuries was also what made Blake’s work in the 19th century a hard sell, as it appeared out-of-fashion and archaic to many.
Blake had his printmaking breakthrough in personal tragedy. When his younger brother died of tuberculosis in 1787, the Metropolitan Museum of Art explains, Blake “reported discovering his wholly original method of ‘relief etching’ — which creates a single, raised printing surface for both text and image — in a vision of Robert soon after his death.” This technique also meant he had total control over his books, even if it involved incredible patience, including writing backwards onto the plates for the types of dense borders that are part of the Illustrations of the Book of Job.
The details are what make the intaglio engravings engaging as you walk by their back wall in the MOBIA gallery (although don’t lean in too close to look; the security here is hoveringly attentive). Beneath the scene for “Then the Lord answered Job out of the Whirlwind,” the words “Hath the Rain a Father & who hath begotten the Drops of the Dew” crawl over prone tree trunks. Alongside the harrowing image of “And smote Job with sore Boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head,” spiders weave webs on either side of his misfortune, a broken vase and grasshopper below. While Blake was fond of the King James Bible for its poetry and theology, and had experimented with the story of Job starting in the 1780s, he also embedded the same terrestrial symbols of his art and poetry.
Blake died in 1827, just a year after the Illustrations of the Book of Job were published. The Jansma Collection prints at MOBIA have an impressive array of suffering, from Rembrandt’s magnificently moody “Christ Crucified Between Two Thieves (The Three Crosses)” (1653–55) to Édouard Manet’s gape-eyed “Dead Christ with Angels” (1866–67). In these, the son of God suffers through the cross and thorns, yet Blake seemed best at embracing the trials of a poor ordinary soul.
Dürer, Rembrandt, Tiepolo: The Jansma Master Prints Collection from the Grand Rapids Art Museum continues at the Museum of Biblical Art (1865 Broadway, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through January 11.