Shortly before he died in 1917, the late Pre-Raphaelite J.W. Waterhouse was developing two oil sketches of approximately the same size: a three-figure composition acquired by the Dahesh Museum of Art (New York) in 1997 (fig. 1) , and the present single-figure "close-up."
Together these canvases reflect Waterhouse's late interest in the spiritualised love celebrated by the Florentine poet, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) in his three-part La Divina Commedia. In his final years, as he endured the liver cancer that would ultimately kill him,Waterhouse became evermore fascinated with the passionate narratives that had captivated the early Pre-Raphaelites, especially Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). We see this in the large canvases now at the Lady Lever Art Gallery-both based on Boccaccio's Il Decameron - and also in the 1916 double treatments of Malory's Tristram and Isolde and Shakespeare's The Tempest. All feature the distinctive red-haired model with whom Waterhouse worked for decades, and the present picture offers a particularly pleasing focus on her profile before a flowering tree that complements her opulent cape.
The female figure in the Dante sketches has traditionally been described as Beatrice, but this now appears to be incorrect. The composition of the Dahesh painting clearly shows the kneeling figure of Dante (immediately recognisable by his characteristic headdress, with lappets over the ears) with two standing figures on one side of a stream, facing a female figure carrying flowers on the other side. This arrangement corresponds closely to the scene in Dante's Purgatorio, Canto XXVIII, where Dante sees Matilda gathering flowers and singing on the farther bank of the stream of Lethe. At this point in the narrative, which Waterhouse knew well, Dante is accompanied by his guides, Virgil and Statius, who must be the two standing figures. Thus the woman in both paintings cannot represent Beatrice (who does not appear until Canto XXX, after Virgil has disappeared, and who does not carry flowers).
The episode of Matilda gathering flowers relates logically to Waterhouse's long-standing interest in women gathering flowers. Many (if not all) seem to be related to the mythological story of Persephone, who was abducted and swept into the underworld by Hades while she gathered flowers in the vale of Enna. Indeed, Dante explicitly connects the scene of Matilda gathering flowers with the story of Persephone (Canto XXVIII, lines 49-51).
It is typical of Waterhouse's decorum that he focused on this episode of Dante's epic, avoiding more sensational moments that captivated many of his contemporaries, such as the eternal torment of the adulterous lovers, Paolo and Francesca. Still waters run deep, of course, and we can be sure that Waterhouse felt quite strongly about Dante's poetry and his views on love.
Not surprisingly, both of the Dante pictures remained in Waterhouse's St John's Wood studio after his death. They were sold separately at Christie's in 1926 when his widow, Esther Kenworthy Waterhouse, dispersed the contents of the studio. Both are enjoyable today not only for their beauty and intellectual significance, but also for revealing how Waterhouse built up his surfaces, first drawing the composition with fluid black paint and then gradually laying in the flesh, flowers, drapery, trees, and landscape.