Spooky Art: The Ghost of a Flea by William Blake

Maria Cristina
2 min readOct 23, 2020
The Ghost of a Flea (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Most people know William Blake as a poet. He’s particularly famous for his “Tyger Tyger, burning bright” poem, which I particularly enjoy. However, what most people do not know is that Blake was also a prolific artist with a distinctive and unique style.

Blake’s illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy are perhaps his best-known works of art; however his painting The Ghost of a Flea is probably one of his most bizarre and unique works. The painting is part of a series of sketches that Blake created for astrologist and spiritualist John Varley. Blake had visions throughout his life, which fascinated Varley. Thus, he asked Blake to create a series of images based on his visionary experiences.

The flea was one such apparition. Traditionally (and for good reason) fleas are associated with dirtiness, greed, and other undesirable attributes. According to my research, when the flea appeared to Blake, he understood it to be “…inhabited by the souls of such men as were by nature blood thirsty to excess.” The flea is thus a personification of depravity and wickedness, a stand in for all the negative aspects of humanity. Such anthropomorphizations were fairly common in nineteenth century art.

Blake chose to approach this idea by creating a monstrous flea creature that will most certainly haunt my nightmares. His flea is grotesquely huge, muscled, and almost reptilian. He holds a cup of blood in his hands, a symbol of his rapacious greed. The flea is surrounded by theatrical curtains and a motif of stars. The influence of the gothic and the Romantic movement is clearly on display. The piece is hugely dramatic and horrifying, all at the same time; it is a triumph of the imagination.

Originally published at https://artisthesolution.blogspot.com on October 23, 2020.