Through the suffused haze of a dream, we see a beautiful red-haired maiden reclined on her bier with her hands folded over her breast and her pale and serene face turned heavenward. She is the beautiful Beatrice of Dante’s Vita Nuova, kissed by the lips of Love who stands over her, holding in one hand a flaming torch and in the other an arrow and a branch from a rose tree. He is clad in a simple robe of red, the colour of passion and she is dressed in white, the colour of purity.
The drawing was based upon the central figures in Rossetti’s monumental oil painting Dante’s Dream at the Time of the Death of Beatrice completed in 1874 (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) which in turn had been based upon a watercolour made in 1856 (Tate). The watercolour and the oil painting depict a scene described in the Vita Nuova in which Dante dreams of being led by Love to Beatrice who is lying beneath a flower-strewn pall held by two female attendants. This ambitious project was very important to Rossetti and he was reluctant to abandon the painting, even when his patron William Graham had refused it because of its large size.
The present drawing was made shortly after Rossetti completed Dante’s Dream and may have originally been a study for the painting which Rossetti elaborated and brought to a higher level of finish to create an independent work of art. The only significant differences between the way the figures were portrayed in the two pictures, is Beatrice’s drapery and the omission of Love’s wings and in the present drawing and the addition of the torch – in the oil painting Cupid is shown holding the hand of Dante who he is being led to Beatrice. The flaming torch is a classical symbol of Cupid and combined with the roses and arrow perhaps made the wings unnecessary. The torch relates to a passage in La Vita Nuova; ‘And he who held her held also in his hand a thing that was burning in flames… he set himself to waken her that slept; after the which he made her eat that thing which flamed in his hand; and she ate as one fearing.’
Rossetti’s father was a Dante scholar but the artist did not read the early Italian poets until he was seventeen when they had a profound effect upon him. From 1848 when he translated La Vita Nuova be became fascinated with the poet and his beloved Beatrice, as he explained himself; ‘The first associations I have are connected with my father’s devoted studies which, from his point of view, have done so much towards the general investigation of Dante’s writings. Thus, in the early days, all around me partook of the influence of the great Florentine, till, from viewing it as a natural element, I also, growing older, was drawn within the circle.’ (William Michael Rossetti, The Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1911, pp.283-284) One of Rossetti’s earliest depictions of Beatrice was in 1850 when he painted the watercolour Beatrice Meeting Dante at a Marriage Feast, Denies him her Salutation (sold in these rooms, 8 June 1999, lot 21) but perhaps his most famous depiction was Beata Beatrix (various versions, the earliest painted in 1864, Tate).
The figure of Love was initially based upon studies of Edward Robert Hughes, nephew of the painter Arthur Hughes who also became a painter himself. However Rossetti also used the young actor Johnston Forbes-Robertson, who he felt possessed a ‘face [that] lent itself most readily to the medieval Love that Dante’s genius invoked.’ (Henry Treffry Dunn’s unpublished papers) The model for Beatrice was Jane Morris, the wife of the poet and designer William Morris. Jane was Rossetti’s principal muse and he made countless images of her brooding and statuesque beauty. Rossetti increasingly identified Jane’s face with that of Beatrice and himself with Dante. His first depiction of Jane Morris as Beatrice was in The Salutation of Beatrice of 1859 (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) and one of his last pictures, painted in 1881, was of the same subject (Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio). In the late 1860s and 1870s Rossetti painted and drew a series of celebrations of Jane’s beauty, including Reverie of 1868 (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), La Pia de’ Tolomeii of 1868-80 (University of Kansas, Lawrence), Mariana of 1870 (Aberdeen Art Gallery), La Donna della Fiamma of 1870 (Manchester City Art Gallery) and Pandora of 1871 (private collection). When he painted her in Dante’s Dream he changed her hair colour to golden red.
In later life Rossetti increasingly used coloured chalks and this has sometimes been said to have been the result of his failing eyesight. This may have partly been the case but it is also true that Rossetti mastered the medium and his chalk drawings have a beautiful delicacy that is often lost in his paintings. When the Io Sono in Pace was exhibited in Japan in 1990 it was described as ‘one of his finest chalk drawings’. It is certainly exceptionally beautiful and the way that Rossetti has used the chalk gives the drawing a sensual and dreamlike atmosphere which is wholly appropriate for the passionate scene as Love’s lips linger over those of Beatrice who appears to raise up to reciprocate the blessing. This humid element is rather lost in the hard lines of the finished oil paintings but is here wonderfully evoked.
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