This subject is taken from Dante's Vita Nuova as translated by D.G. Rossetti in his Early Italian Poets (1861). Rossetti describes the book as 'the Autobiography or Autopsychology of Dante's youth till about his twenty-seventh year'. In the passage in question Beatrice is lamenting the death of her father, the full text being as follows:
And because it is the usage of that city that men meet with men in such a grief, and women with women, certain ladies of her companionship gathered themselves unto Beatrice, where she kept alone in her weeping: and as they passed in and out, I could hear them speak concerning her, how she wept. At length two of them went by me, who said: 'Certainly she grieveth in such sort that one might die for pity, beholding her.' Then, feeling the tears upon my face, I put up my hands to hide them: and had it not been in that I hoped to hear more concerning her (seeing that where I sat, her friends passed continually in and out), I should assuredly have gone thence to be alone, when I felt the tears come. But as I still sat in that place, certain ladies again passed near me, who were saying among themselves: 'Which of us shall be joyful any more, who have listened to this lady in her piteous sorrow?' And there were others who said as they went by me: 'He that sitteth here could not weep more if he had beheld her as we have beheld her;' and again: 'He is so altered that he seemeth not as himself.' And still as the ladies passed to and fro, I could hear them speak after this fashion of her and of me.
The subject is characteristic of Marie Spartali, who often treated Italian literary themes, finding many of them in Rossetti's Early Italian Poets. A renowned beauty who often sat to the artist, she was of course familiar with his work. She would not only have known his volume of translations but that he himself had consistently painted incidents from Dante's real or imaginary life. The other great influence on her choice of subject was the fact that she lived for many years in Italy. In 1871 she married William James Stillman, an American who had abandoned an artistic career for the life of a journalist, and in 1877 they settled in Florence, where the present picture would have been painted. In 1886 they moved to Rome, where Stillman was the correspondent for The Times until his retirement in 1898.
The picture was exhibited at the fourth summer exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery, which had opened in New Bond Street, London, in 1877 as a liberal alternative to the Royal Academy and immediately established itself as a flagship of the Aesthetic Movement. Marie was one of the many Pre-Raphaelite followers who supported the venture, transferring to its sucessor, the New Gallery, in 1888.