'Dante and Beatrice', Henry Holiday, 1882-84
Oil on canvas, 142.2 x 203.2cm
Accession Number WAG3125
Like many of the artists of his time Holiday was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite painters. Early in his career he was praised by the painter Millais and was in contact with artists such as Holman Hunt, Edward Burne-Jones and D.G. Rossetti.
'Dante and Beatrice' was the most important painting by Henry Holiday. The theme of the painting is inspired by the autobiography 'Vita Nuova' of the medieval poet Dante (1265-1321). Dante concealed his love for Beatrice by pretending to be attracted by other women. The scene shown here is that of Beatrice refusing to greet Dante because of the gossip that had reached her. Beatrice is the woman dressed in white. The woman next to Beatrice is Monna Vanna (or Giovanna) a companion of Beatrice and the mistress of Dante's friend Guido Cavalcanti. In the painting the stern almost statuesque expression of Beatrice contrasts with the posture of Monna Vanna who not only appears to support Beatrice's decision but looks back to Dante's reaction.
Holiday was greatly interested in the medieval poet Dante.
As early as 1860 he painted another scene from 'Vita Nuova', the meeting of the poet and Beatrice when children in her father's garden, with the aim of exhibiting at the Royal Academy Exhibition. In 1875 Holiday painted a portrait of Dante. The Walker Art Gallery owns three sketches Holiday made for the 'Dante and Beatrice' painting. Two of the sketches show all three figures with an additional maiden, while the third sketch is of Dante himself. Holiday had also made a plaster statuette of the two female figures nude to which he later added clothes in plaster. This statuette of the two clothed figures is also in the Walker Art Gallery's collection.
Holiday decided to depict the scene at the Ponte Santa Trinita looking towards the Ponte Vecchio along the Lungarno. From his research he discovered that the Lungarno was paved with bricks and that in the 13th century there were already shops in the area which he included in the painting. Holiday painted the Ponte Vecchio with scaffolding because he had found out that the bridge was destroyed by a flood in 1235 and was still under construction around 1285-90.
'Dante and Beatrice' was the Walker Art Gallery Picture of the Month in February 2000, a more detailed discussion of 'Dante and Beatrice' is available here.
BBC Radio 4 Competition - Is this the Greatest Painting in Britain?