william blake & samuel palmer at the morgan library

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the morgan library is probably my favorite museum in new york.    i recently went for the show of william blake — whose work always startles me with its eccentricity and freshness.   genius, really.     though the exhibition design is uninspired and not all of  blake’s work is wonderful (when not up to snuff his watercolors are muddy and his imagery the ravings of a crackpot), this is an excellent show.

in addition to the mogan’s enormous blake holdings, the show included a few pieces by some of his contemporaries.    for me, the best part of the show was the re-discovery of samuel palmer.  i’d written a paper about 4 jewel-like paintings at the ashmolean as an undergraduate (years ago), and hadn’t thought about palmer since.    but then i saw his “pear tree in a walled garden.”

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can you believe this was painted in 1829!?    how lovely and pre-van gough…      then, when i went upstairs to see the “acquisitions since 2004 show,” i found this:

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“oak tree and beech, lullingstone park” (about 1828)  pencil, pen and brown ink, watercolor and gouache on gray paper, 11 1/2 x 18 1/2 inches.     wow!    this is one of the most beautiful drawings i’ve ever seen.    as i walked through the rest of the show i kept coming back to this.   that glorious oak, expressed with a few lines in brown and a little bit of transparent pigment,  is the source of gravity that anchors you to the convex earth.   while the horizon, defined by crackling yellowy-orange tongues of flame, tilts off dizzyingly, the tree is solidly grounded.    a source of comfort in an uncertain world…

william blake’s world: “a new heaven is begun” is up at the morgan library until 3 january 2010.

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