William Blake’s illustrations to Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy have been described as the ‘glorious culmination’ of his art. Written in the early fourteenth century, this epic poem recounts Dante’s imaginary pilgrimage through Hell and Purgatory to Paradise. Commissioned by his last patron, John Linnell, Blake produced 102 drawings illustrating the Divine Comedy between 1824 and his death in 1827. These drawings range from preliminary sketches to highly finished watercolours. Only seven of the compositions were engraved for Linnell’s proposed publication. Blake’s personal theology led him not only to illustrate but to comment upon, and even criticize, Dante’s Catholic interpretation of salvation, stating that ‘Dante saw Devils where I see none – I see only good’. The richly coloured Dante running from the Three Beasts depicts the opening incident in the story. Dante, fleeing the dark woods, inhabited by ferocious animals that symbolize worldly sins, encounters the Roman poet Virgil, who becomes his guide through the many terrifying circles of Hell and Purgatory.

Edited from text by Alisa Bunbury from Prints and Drawings in the International Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 79-81


  • Title: Dante running from the three beasts
  • Creator: William Blake
  • Date Created: (1824-1827)
  • Location Created: London, England
  • Physical Dimensions: 37.0 x 52.8 cm (Sheet)
  • Type: Watercolours
  • Rights: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Felton Bequest, 1920, © National Gallery of Victoria
  • External Link: National Gallery of Victoria
  • Medium: pen and ink and watercolour over pencil
  • Series title: illustration to The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (Inferno I, 1-90) (1824-1827)
  • Provenance: Commissioned by John Linnell (1792-1882), 1824; by descent to Herbert Linnell; his sale, Christie’s, London, 15 March 1918, no. 148; from where purchased, through the National Art Collections Fund and on the advice of Robert Ross, for the Felton Bequest, 1918 (arrived Melbourne 1920).
  • Place Part Of: England
  • Catalogue raisonné: Butlin 1981, 812.1; Butlin & Gott, 3
  • Biography: The visionary work of English artist and poet William Blake has been highly influential (his words to the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ are now an icon of English patriotism), yet it remains perplexing and little understood. England in the late eighteenth century was prosperous, yet unsettled by religious dissent and radical political and nationalistic debate, provoked by the Industrial and French Revolutions. Blake developed a non-conformist theology in which art played an essential role in illuminating the metaphysical realm. While struggling to support himself with his reproductive work, he explored this highly personal prophetic and apocalyptic mythology in his poetry, watercolours, engravings and illustrated books. He was occasionally helped financially by a few patrons and friends and, in his later years, gained a devoted circle of artistic admirers – Samuel Palmer, George Richmond and Edward Calvert – who sympathized with his plea for a spiritual art in an increasingly materialistic age. Such ideals later influenced the beliefs of the Pre-Raphaelite movement; Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in particular, was greatly inspired by Blake.
  • Additional information: The National Gallery of Victoria’s outstanding collection of Blake’s work was largely formed when John Linnell’s collection was sold in 1918. Funded by the Felton Bequest, the Gallery acquired thirty-six of the Divine Comedy drawings executed between 1824 and 1827, the engravings to the Book of Job (1823–26), two watercolours for Milton’s Paradise Lost (1822), and individual colour prints for the prophetic books. Received with disdain when first exhibited in Melbourne, Blake’s art has been re-evaluated during the twentieth century, and his works are now seen as among the Felton Bequest’s greatest acquisitions. In addition to occasional purchases during the century, the acquisition in the 1980s of Songs of Innocence (1789) and Night Thoughts (1797) enriched the holdings with exceptional examples of Blake’s early work, previously lacking in the collection.

Get the app

Explore museums and play with Art Transfer, Pocket Galleries, Art Selfie, and more


Google apps