Dicksee came from a family of artists; his father, uncle, brother and sister were all painters and exhibited at the Royal Academy. Like many other artists of the time, they lived in Bloomsbury, the bohemian quarter of the day. He entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1870, being taught by Millais and won gold and silver medals. Dicksee began to exhibit at the Royal Academy in 1876 and was elected a full Academician in 1891. Dicksee never married, and in 1898 he settled at 3 Greville Place in St John's Wood, then popular with academic artists. In later years Dicksee received many honours, both at home and abroad, culminating in his election as President of the Royal Academy in 1924. He was knighted in 1925 and a K.C.V.O. two years later.
The present drawing is a study for a painting exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1902 (no. 13). A watercolour study of the same composition was sold in these Rooms, 16 June 2010 (fig. 1). Dicksee drew the subject of La Belle Dame sans Merci from the 1819 ballad written by John Keats. The poem tells the tale of a knight who upon meeting a mysterious woman, ‘Full beautiful—a faery’s child’, is utterly beguiled and is led to her ‘Elfin grot’. However, his seduction leads to his ruin, as upon waking he is left roaming the hillside, ‘Alone and palely loitering’ in a liminal and shadowy world, where ‘no birds sing’. The present lot depicts the dangerous yet captivating femme fatale leaning down to her fated knight. Dicksee has depicted her nude in this ethereal drawing, with her beautiful features rendered in profile and her long hair tumbling past her shoulders.
The subject was popular amongst the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers, and La Belle Dame sans Merci was painted by Cadogan Cowper, Waterhouse, Arthur Hughes, Walter Crane, and Henry Meynell Rheam.