Holiday’s 1883 Dante and Beatrice (fig. 1, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) is considered his most famous and important work, taken from Dante Alighieri’s autobiographical poem, La Vita Nuova. Dante was a Florentine poet who lived between 1265 and 1321, and his writing inspired many of the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers, particularly Rossetti. The subject must have engaged Holiday for some time, as the present work was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1875, eight years before Dante and Beatrice, and another picture, entitled Dante and Beatrice meeting as Children (location unknown) was exhibited there in 1861.
This watercolour portrait was described as being ‘studied from a cast said to have been taken from the face of the poet after death’, and certainly Dante’s strong, patrician features here have an almost life-like realism, while the cartouche attached to the marble shelf in the foreground recalls the identification of a death mask. Dante holds his La Vita Nuova in front of him, with a hand-written page in Latin beside. He wears the laurel wreath which is often associated with him – a medieval crown of honour for poets.