Yale Center for British Art
John Flaxman, 1755–1826, British

The Creation of the Heavens
ca. 1790
Gray ink and gray wash on medium, slightly textured, cream wove paper
Sheet: 9 1/8 × 10 inches (23.2 × 25.4 cm)
Inscribed on back in graphite, upper left: "3 1/4"; in graphite, upper center: "9 1/2"; in graphite, upper right: "3/14"; in graphite, center right: "8 3/4"; in graphite, lower left: "[...]"
Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
Drawings & Watercolors
Prints and Drawings
Subject Terms:
deities | pointing | stars | heaven | figures | creation | angels | planets | flying | religious and mythological subject
Currently On View:
Not on view
Curatorial Comment:
Despite his reputation as an artist who took his principal inspiration from the ancient world, Flaxman argued in his lectures to the Royal Academy that “there are more suitable artistic subjects to be found in the Old and New Testaments than in pagan mythology” (Bindman, 1979, p. 31). “The Creation of the Heavens” is an example of Flaxman’s lesser-known series of biblical drawings. In this dramatic composition the aggregate mass of God and his angels flies upward, cutting a diagonal swath across the darkened paper. Sidestepping the problem of representing the Creator’s visage, Flaxman depicts God and the angels from behind, their forms simplified into a few strokes of watercolor. Stars or planets are suggested by the spots of untouched white paper surrounded by the dark watercolor wash in the background. Locating this undated drawing within Flaxman’s career is difficult. During his sojourn in Rome we know that he spent time drawing illustrations for “Pilgrim's Progress” and also biblical subject matter such as “Enoch Raised to Heaven” (1792, British Museum, London). Influenced by the Renaissance art in the Italian capital, Flaxman is clearly indebted in this drawing to Michelangelo’s “Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Planets” in the Sistine Chapel. Scholars have also noted, however, the similarity between “The Creation of the Heavens” and plates from William Blake’s “The First Book of Urizen” (1794). It might therefore make sense to date the drawing to after Flaxman’s return to London in 1794, the same year that Urizen appeared.
Exhibition History:
The Critique of Reason : Romantic Art, 1760–1860 (Yale University Art Gallery, 2015-03-06 - 2015-07-26)

An American's Passion for British Art - Paul Mellon's Legacy (Royal Academy of Arts, 2007-10-20 - 2008-01-27)

An American's Passion for British Art - Paul Mellon's Legacy (Yale Center for British Art, 2007-04-18 - 2007-07-29)

Paul Mellon's Legacy : A Passion for British Art (Yale Center for British Art, 2007-04-18 - 2007-07-29)

The Line of Beauty : British Drawings and Watercolors of the Eighteenth Century (Yale Center for British Art, 2001-05-19 - 2001-08-05)

The Fuseli Circle in Rome - Early Romantic Art in the 1770s (Yale Center for British Art, 1979-09-12 - 1979-11-11)

John Baskett, Paul Mellon's legacy, a passion for British art : masterpieces from the Yale Center for British Art , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2007, p. 272, no. 63, fl. 63, N5220 M552 P38 2007 OVERSIZE (YCBA)

David Bindman, John Flaxman, R.A, Catalogue of an Exhibition Held at the Royal Academy of Arts, 26 October-9 December 1979 , Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1979, p. 31, NJ18 F615 B55 1979 (YCBA)

The critique of reason : Romantic art, 1760-1860 : March 6-July 26, 2015, Yale University Art Gallery, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, 2015, [pp. 14, 16], fig. 24, V 2574 (YCBA)