In 1826, William Blake was 65 and in poor health. That year he received a commission to illustrate Dante’s Divine Comedy. Blake started the project with great enthusiasm — his worldview resonated with Dante’s rejection of materialism and contempt of the way power corrupts humanity and morality.
Fate, however, was unkind to William Blake. He died months later, befallen by gallbladder illness, while the project was far from completion. Blake worked on the project, quite literary, on his dying day and produced 102 drawings. Some paintings were merely sketches while others — fully developed watercolors.
The Divine Comedy drawings were never published. Eventually, in 1918, after many travails and changing hands, the paintings were sold at an auction and ended up scattered across galleries in UK, Australia and the United States.
All 102 plates were collected in a fabulous volume William Blake’s Divine Comedy Illustrations.
Salvador Dalí, illustrated several works of classical literature: Don Quixote in 1946, the essays of Montaigne in 1947, Alice in Wonderland in 1969, and Romeo and Juliet in 1975.
In 1957, Dalí was at the height of his fame. More than a century after William Blake had done the same, Salvador Dalí began working on a series of 100 paintings based on The Divine Comedy. The project was commissioned by the Italian government.
Dalí agreed to complete the artwork in eight years. Then, according to a plan, it should have been released as limited-edition prints dedicated to the 700th anniversary of Dante’s birth.
What was to follow alarmed and amazed the art and literary world: the Italian government pulled out of the project. It reacted to the public outcry — Italians were unhappy that the legacy of their national treasure, Dante Alighieri, had been entrusted to a Spaniard. Defiant, Dalí continued the project on his own. The series was completed in 1964.
Two engravers spent five years hand-carving 3,500 wooden blocks to be used for reproductions of Dalí’s paintings.
The series was never published as an official English edition of the classic book, much to a great disappointment of everyone who expected for a book arrival. The reproductions of the individual paintings can still be purchased online — often for outrageous prices — and found in an obscure out-of-print book released by the Park West Gallery in 1993.