Your Collection: A Study by Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti


Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Study of the Figure of Love for “Dante’s Dream at the Time of the Death of Beatrice (1874), red, grey and brown chalks on wove paper, 59 × 42.3 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Gift of the Denis T. Lanigan Collection, 2015. Photo © NGC


Portions of this text have been adapted from the upcoming exhibition catalogue, Beauty Awakening, edited by Sonia Del Re, with contributions from Dennis T. Lanigan and Christopher Newall.

Freed from the context of the work for which it was created, this study for the allegorical figure of Love appears strangely burdened, both physically and emotionally. Intended to fit into a larger commissioned work, Rossetti produced a number of studies of this same figure, ultimately bending low to bestow a gentle kiss on the deceased Beatrice.

Born Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti, the artist was the son of Gabriele Rossetti, an Italian poet and scholar who had named his son after the famous Florentine poet Dante Alighieri. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the subject of Dante and his love for Beatrice Portinari would dominate Rossetti’s art throughout his career. Generally known to friends and family as “Gabriel,” Rossetti would generally ask that the name “Dante” appear first in publications, in honour of the poet.

Educated at home, Rossetti originally aspired to be a poet like his father, siblings and namesake. He also, however, showed a marked interest in painting, taking lessons first at Henry Sass’ Drawing Academy from 1841 to 1844, and later at the Antique School of the Royal Academy, which he left in 1848.

Forever jockeying between the worlds of poetry and art, Rossetti tended to produce works with a metaphysical bent, seeking out artists with similar interests. Following an exhibition of the painting The Eve of St. Agnes by William Holman Hunt, Rossetti contacted the artist. Discovering that they shared literary and artistic ideals, the two went on to form the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood with artist John Everett Millais.

The Brotherhood’s aim was to reform English art, which they found far too mannered and formal. Instead, they reverted to the rich colours, symbolism, and intricate compositions of 14th-century Italian and Flemish art. As critic John Ruskin would later write, “Every Pre-Raphaelite landscape background is painted to the last touch . . . Every Pre-Raphaelite figure, however studied in expression, is a true portrait of some living person.”

Like his fellow Pre-Raphaelites — a group that later grew to include poet William Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, Thomas Woolner and Frederic George Stephens — Rossetti used actual people to model the figures in his paintings. Most were close friends and family, including his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, and his sister Christina, both of whom feature frequently in his works.

In the early 1850s, Rossetti began painting a series of events from La Vita Nuova (1295), the autobiography of Dante’s youth and early manhood. The book recounts, in particular, Dante’s relationship with Beatrice and her transformation into his ideal of spiritual perfection. It was from Dante and his contemporaries among the early Italian poets — the stilnovisti — and their concept of the secular religion of Love, that Rossetti ultimately derived his career as both a love-painter and love-poet.

The National Gallery’s study references a passage in La Vita Nuova, in which Dante describes a dream he had on the ninth day of a feverish illness: the day of Beatrice’s death. Rossetti had apparently intended, as early as 1848, to illustrate Dante’s dream. He first produced a watercolour version of the subject, followed by two painted versions, one of which was to become his largest canvas ever (now in the collection of the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England).

The finished compositions show Dante led by Love to the bedside of the deceased Beatrice. As Love reaches the bier, he bends over Beatrice to kiss her. All three works are replete with elaborate symbolism, which underwent some transformation from the early watercolour version to the later oil paintings. Moreover, the austere medievalism of the watercolour has given way to the richness of Rossetti’s High Renaissance style in the oil paintings.

Johnston Forbes-Robertson, who went on to become one of the finest actors of the 19th century, posed as Love in the two oil versions. Rossetti, however, was never satisfied with the figure of Love and altered it in both paintings.

The National Gallery’s study differs somewhat from the figure of Love in the oil versions in that the character is not as stooped, the right hand and arm are positioned slightly differently, the folds of the drapery are altered, and the wings and scallop shell are absent. In a less accomplished 1875 study for Love, the forward stoop is also less accentuated than in the paintings, and the wings and arrow are omitted.

Often short of money, Rossetti sold the National Gallery sheet and eight other studies of the same figure in 1875, after completing them enough to make them saleable. This particular sheet has had a rather peripatetic life. Originally purchased by the infamous art dealer Charles Augustus Howell in 1875, it was bought from Howell shortly thereafter and presented back to him by his friend Leonard Rowe Valpy, a patron of Rossetti’s. It was later purchased by a succession of dealers, primarily in London, until acquired by Saskatoon collector Dr. Dennis T. Lanigan in 1983. This was the second Victorian drawing purchased by Dr. Lanigan, who generously donated it to the National Gallery in 2015 as part of a large promised gift.

The National Gallery’s study has been executed in red, grey and brown chalks on a greenish wove paper — likely a specialty drawing paper that was commercially available at the time. It is signed with the artist’s monogram and dated 1874.

Study of the Figure of Love for “Dante’s Dream at the Time of the Death of Beatrice” is featured in the National Gallery of Canada exhibition Beauty’s Awakening: Drawings by the Pre-Raphaelites and Their Contemporaries from the Lanigan Collection, on until January 3, 2016. It also appears in the accompanying catalogue of the same name edited by National Gallery Associate Curator Sonia Del Re. The catalogue is available from the National Gallery of Canada Bookstore.

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