The painting illustrates Dante's Purgatorio, Canto 28, in which the poet, accompanied by Virgil and Statius, penetrates the Garden of Eden and encounters
A lady, wandering through the wood alone,
Singing and culling flower after flower,
Wherewith her pathway was all painted o'er.
In Canto 33 the lady is given the name of Matelda (sic), and she is usually identified as Matilda, Countess of Tuscany (1046-1115), a great heiress of the house of Canossa who was renowned for her fortitude in the face of many adversities. In Dante's poem she represents the Active and Beatrice the Contemplative Life.
G.D. Leslie was the son of C.R. Leslie, R.A. (1794-1859), the Anglo-American painter who specialised in literary genre and was the biographer of John Constable. Born in 1835, G.D. Leslie studied under his father before entering the Royal Academy Schools. He began to exhibit at the R.A. in 1857, and for a few years was profoundly influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites. Matilda, which was exhibited in 1860, when the artist was twenty-five, is an outstanding example. Rich in meticulously-handled naturalistic detail inspired by Dante's graphic account of the Garden of Eden, it is almost a textbook illustration of Pre-Raphaelite and Ruskinian principles. Cosmo Monkhouse, publishing the picture in 1883, described it as coming 'nearer to what the public reckons as Pre-Raphaelite than any other of the works we print: for (it is) "purist" in feeling and filled with almost infinite detail of grass and leaf and flower'. Sixteen years later Percy Bate included it in The English Pre-Raphaelite Painters, his pioneering study of the movement.
Although the Pre-Raphaelites' earliest works, exhibited within a year or two of the Brotherhood's foundation in 1848, had provoked a bitterly hostile reaction from the critics, it was not long before taste began to change. This was partly due to the sheer appeal of the pictures themselves, especially those of Millais, and partly to the advocacy of John Ruskin, who came to the Brothers' defence in two letters to the Times in May 1851 and went on to champion them in a pamphlet (1851), in the Edinburgh Lectures (1853), and in the third volume of Modern Painters (1854). Leslie was one of many young artists who succumbed to these influences and experienced a brief Pre-Raphaelite phase before moving on to develop a less demanding style, whether this was more classical, more Aesthetic, or simply more conventional. His later speciality was domestic genre in the Aesthetic mode. Pot Pourri, a fine example exhibited at the R.A. in 1874, in which two young women in 'Queen Anne' dress make the eponymous mixture in oriental bowls within a tightly-structured and delicately-toned composition, was sold in these Rooms on 27 November 2002 , lot 13, (£446,650). By the time he painted Matilda in 1859, Leslie was already living in St John's Wood, and he was to become a prominent member of the St John's Wood Clique, a group of artists, also including Philip Calderon, W.F. Yeames, Henry Stacy Marks and others, who all favoured genre subjects, whether of a pathetic or frivolous kind. However in 1884 he left the area, settling at Wallingford in Berkshire, where he found many subjects for landscapes.
Dante's Vision of Matilda gathering Flowers had also been the subject of a watercolour by D.G. Rossetti, executed for Ruskin in 1855. The watercolour itself is lost, but a related pen-and-ink drawing exists in the Ashmolean Museum (fig. 1). This was the moment when Ruskin was still a passionate admirer of Rossetti's work, and was encouraging him to illustrate the poet whom he regarded as 'the great prophetic exponent of the heart of the Middle Ages'. Matilda gathering Flowers was one of seven watercolours based on the Purgatorio that he commissioned from Rossetti, and was a pair to a subject from Canto 27, Dante's Vision of Rachel and Leah, now in the Tate Gallery.
It would be interesting to know if Leslie was aware of these watercolours, and if they inspired him to tackle the Matilda subject himself. It seems highly likely since Ruskin was on close terms with the Leslie family, and had already praised earlier works by George in Academy Notes. Moreover, although the composition of Leslie's picture has little in common with Rossetti's corresponding design (fig. 1), Leslie shows Dante, Virgil and Statius standing in the distance contemplating Matilda in much the same way that Rossetti had shown Dante watching the two girls in his Rachel and Leah. It may also be noted, for what it is worth, that Leslie's picture was entitled Dante's Leah when it was published in the Magazine of Art in 1883 and again when Percy Bate reproduced it in 1899.
The picture was one of two, both rather similar in conception, that Leslie exhibited at the R.A. in 1860. The other (no. 588) was entitled Meditation, and, like Matilda, was accompanied in the catalogue by a quotation from one of the Psalms (no. XCIV). The pictures were commended by Tom Taylor writing in his capacity as art critic on the Times. 'Two figures by Mr G.D. Leslie - one called 'Matilda' from Dante's Purgatorio, a lady reclining (sic) in a green garden on the edge of a pool starred with water lillies; the other a meditative figure in a similar landscape - without the water - show at once a power of faithful landcape painting and a thoughtful and graceful feeling for female form and character, which promise well for this young painter's future. The fault of both pictures is a want of keeping between landscape and figures, and a certain rawness and over-emphasis, the result of honest painstaking not yet matured by study and practice'.
The pictures were hung in the North Room, not far from Whistler's At the Piano (Taft Museum, Cincinnatti), a revolutionary work in this context which inevitably excited much comment.
Matilda was bought direct from the artist by John Hamilton Trist (1811-1891), a Brighton wine-merchant who formed a large collection of works by the Pre-Raphaelites and their contemporaries. The collection was considered worthy of an article in the Magazine of Art in 1883, and by the time Trist died it consisted of well over a hundred items. The artists represented included Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Madox Brown, Leighton, Alma-Tadema, Albert Moore, Legros, George Heming Mason and many others, but Trist's favourite artist was Arthur Hughes, by whom he owned some twenty examples. One of the most important, Silver and Gold, was sold in these Rooms on 25 October 1991 (lot 50). There were two works by George Dunlop Leslie in the collection, the other being Marguerite, a work of 1866.
At Trist's sale in 1892, Matilda was one of a number of pictures that were bought in by the family (Silver and Gold was another). In 1899 it was published by Bate, and in 1905 it was lent to an exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. When J.H. Trist's son, Herbert Hardwick Trist, died in 1935, the picture passed to his widow, who sold it at Christie's two years later. At this date it was still accompanied by the original receipt, but this has since been lost.