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William Blake produced four different interpretations of this famous parable, in which the two sides of the artwork are separated into the wise and the foolish. The tale itself is also sometimes known as Parable of the Ten Virgins or Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids.
The artist was commissioned to produce a series of works by Sir Thomas Lawrence and records remain of payments of around 15 guineas for each artwork. The item displayed here has been classified as a copy from around the same period, having originally been attributed directly to the artist himself, though there is still much to appreciate about it. Lawrence himself, the patron, would produce an influential career of his own and remains highlt regarded himself, particularly within the US where much of his own work resides. This iteration was the fourth of four on this topic, with others being for Thomas Butts in 1805, John Linnell in 1822 and William Haines shortly afterwards. Blake's own career has been researched in far greater depth than most other artists from this period, in part due to his success within literature as well which has encouraged a variety of different historians to piece together different elements of his life.
One can easily spot the clear diversion found in this work, with the elegant, desirable virgins on the left against the foolish ladies found on the right. The piece refers to a passage within Matthew 25:1-13, where religious followers are encouraged to prepare properly for their spiritual activities. The women on the right do not do so, and are left, literally, in the dark. Blake would turn to religion for inspiration many times over and found there to be a wealth of guidance and morality which was perfectly suited to his own fantastical style of painting and drawing. Even today these artworks can continue to give people strength by visually delivering some of the passages as laid out in religious scripture, helping it to come alive before your eyes and attract new audiences who might otherwise have failed to achieve quite such a connection.
The iteration found in front of us here remains in the collection of the Tate in the UK and was completed using watercolour and gouache on paper, making it technically a mixed media piece, though William Blake used this combination many times during his career. The Tate itself has amongst the best collection of work from this artist's career anywhere in the world, with other highlights to be found here including The Inscription over the Gate, Newton and Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils. Please note that many of his drawings cannot be viewed in person without an appointment, but several paintings are out on permanent display. You will notice that the Tate institution has an impressively varied selection of art from a wide breadth of different movements and this led to them creating several different galleries across London which categorise these roughly by date, with traditional and more modern paintings and sculptures kept separate in order to appeal to different audiences. One can easily consider The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins to be amongst the most famous of artworks produced by Blake within an extraordinary career, competing well against the likes of other highlights such as The Ancient of Days.