Beatrice Portinari was the Florentine girl who represented the ideal of spritual love for the great Italian poet Dante (1265-1321). He first met her at the age of nine, and when they re-met nine years later he felt 'as if intoxicated'. When she died in 1290 he almost lost his sanity. His love for her is celebrated in prose and verse in La Vita Nuova, published three years later; and she reappears in his masterpiece, the Divina Commedia, guiding him towards the ultimate experience of celestial bliss in heaven.
Dante dominated the intellectual life of Rossetti's father, Gabriele Rossetti, an Italian political refugee who held the post of Professor of Italian at King's College, London. The boy was named after his father's hero and he himself was obsessed with the figure of Dante, publishing translations of the Vita Nuova and other works in his Early Italian Poets (1861) and illustrating the poet's life in numerous paintings. Perhaps the best known example is Beata Beatrix (fig. 1), conceived before the death of Rossetti's wife, Lizzie Siddal, in 1862, but painted later and generally regarded as his memorial to her. Rossetti described the picture as a symbolic representation of Beatrice's death, showing her 'rapt from Earth to Heaven' as she sits in a balcony overlooking Florence.
Our picture dates from 1869, when Beata Beatrix was nearing completion. Beatrice is seen during her earthly life as Dante encounters her in the city's streets, and a sonnet from the Vita Nuova is written on the cartouche at upper left. Rossetti's translation begins as follows:
My lady looks so gentle and so pure
When yielding salutation by the way,
That the tongue trembles and has nought to say,
And the eyes, which fain would see, may not endure.
Dante's meetings with Beatrice, whether on earth or in heaven, were a never-ending source of interest to Rossetti, inspiring a number of paintings from the early 1850s until his death in 1882, when a large Salutation of Beatrice (Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio), painted for the Liverpool shipowner F.R. Leyland, was still on the easel. This late painting has little in common with ours compositionally, showing an almost full-length figure in a very different pose, but the subject is the same and the model in each case is Jane Morris.
Jane is as pervasive a presence in Rossetti's later work as Lizzie Siddal is in his early watercolours and drawings. Born in 1839, the daughter of an Oxford stablehand or ostler, she came to the attention of the Pre-Raphaelite circle in the summer of 1857 when Rossetti and an entourage of followers, including William Morris and his close friend Edward Burne-Jones, descended on the town to paint murals illustrating the Morte d'Arthur in the new debating chamber at the Union. Struck by her unusual beauty and statuesque figure, Rossetti asked her to sit for his mural, and even at this stage they seem to have been mutually attracted. But Rossetti was already engaged to Lizzie Siddal, and it was Morris, who had also fallen for her, that Jane married in 1859.
She was never really in love with him, marrying him at least partly for his wealth and social position, and when Lizzie died from an overdose of laudanum in February 1862, probably taking her own life in a fit of depression, the stage was set for a renewal of intimacy between Jane and Rossetti. In the summer of 1865 Jane posed for a well-known series of photographs in the garden at 16 Cheyne Walk, Rossetti's house in Chelsea (fig. 2), and in 1868 she sat to him for a formal portrait and began modelling for a series of imaginative compositions that represent one of the most powerful manifestations of later Pre-Raphaelitism. Their affair lasted from the late 1860s until about 1875, and during the years 1871-4 they managed to spend long periods of time together at Kelmscott Manor, the sleepy old Cotswold house on the upper Thames of which Rossetti and Morris had recently become co-tenants. Much about the relationship remains obscure, and Jane herself destroyed vital evidence by burning most of her lover's letters for the years 1870-77. She eventually brought the liaison to an end because of Rossetti's increasingly disturbed state of mind and dependence on chloral, although they remained on affectionate terms and Jane continued to model for him and to inspire major works.
Our picture belongs to a relatively early stage of the affair. It is a year later than the important group of likenesses dating from 1868: the formal portrait (Society of Antiquaries, Kelmscott Manor) and such imaginative conceptions as Aurea Catena, Reverie, Mariana and La Pia. It dates in fact from the same year as the magnificent chalk study for Pandora sold in these Rooms on 9 June 2004 (lot 20). But both works are earlier than many of the most famous images with which Jane is associated: Proserpine (versions 1871-82), Venus Astarte (1877), La Donna della Finestra (1879), The Day Dream (1880), and others.
Nor is it altogether fanciful to see the picture, in which the 'gentle' and 'pure' Beatrice shyly offers the poet her 'salutation', as a reflection of the relative happiness that Rossetti enjoyed during the first years of his relationship with Jane. Certainly the mood is darker in some of the later pictures for which she modelled, when clouds were gathering as a result of Rossetti's erratic, drug-fuelled behaviour. Key examples are the much-repeated Proserpine, an image of grim foreboding, and Venus Astarte (Manchester), which shows the goddess of love as a relentless and threatening presence.
The picture does not appear either in H.C. Marillier's pioneering monograph, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: An Illustrated Memorial of his Art and Life (1899), or in Virginia Surtees' catalogue raisonné, The Paintings and Drawings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1971). It is, however, amply documented in Rossetti's surviving letters to Jane Morris, now in the British Library. Embargoed for fifty years after Jane's death, these letters became available for study in 1964, and have since been published twice.
We first hear of the picture in a letter of 21 July 1869, when Jane, suffering, as always, from unspecified ill-health, had gone with her husband to take the mineral waters at the central German resort of Bad Ems. 'I want much to get the little Beatrice I was doing from you finished', Rossetti wrote to her care of the poste restante at Cologne, 'but the hands are in the way as I think I must alter them and all the models have such vile hands. I have an idea I may ask Mary Spartali to sit for them'. A member of the Anglo-Greek community that figures so prominently in Pre-Raphaelite annals, Marie Spartali (later Stillman) was a renowned beauty as well as being a talented artist herself. The sitting Rossetti was proposing here would be the first she had given him, although she would often model for him in the future. He may have thought of her because of her superficial resemblance to Jane Morris. 'The two marvels', wrote his follower Graham Robertson in later years, 'had many points in common'. If anyone doubted Jane Morris's beauty, Robertson would recommend that they 'start with Mrs Stillman, who was, so to speak, Mrs Morris for Beginners'.
Rossetti approached Marie through his old friend Ford Madox Brown, with whom she was studying painting, and when he wrote to Jane again on 30 July he was able to report that she had 'given me one sitting to paint the hands of the Beatrice I did from you, and she is to give me another. I think they will come well enough'. By 4 August Marie had sat again, and Rossetti was thinking of using her to make more general studies. 'I began one in the fag end of the second sitting for the hands (which I have got done) but it was not satisfactory and I shall begin another if she can sit'. The last reference to the subject occurs in a letter of 14 August, when Rossetti was planning to go to Scotland to stay with his friend William Bell Scott at Penkill Castle in Ayrshire. He had evidently had second thoughts about the hands. They were not 'done' to his satisfaction, as he had reported ten days earlier, and he was beginning to wonder if it would not have been better to wait for Jane's return. 'I hoped on getting the hands put into your picture from Miss S.,... but other things have come in the way and it sticks as it was since then; so after all perhaps I might have done the hands again from you, which is a provoking idea'. What the outcome was we never hear, although nothing could have happened before mid-September, when the Morrises returned from Bad Ems and Rossetti from Penkill.
A smaller watercolour version of the picture exists (private collection). Sometimes known (erroneously) as A Woman in a Blue Dress, it appears in Marillier's monograph (no. 256, illustrated p. 201) and in Virginia Surtees' catalogue (no. 260D and Addenda). It was sold at Christie's (London) on 16 June 1970, lot 153, and there is a good colour reproduction in Stephen Wildman's catalogue of the Rossetti exhibition circulated in Japan by the Tokyo Shimbun in 1990-1, p. 105, no. 54. In view of the date of the present oil version, the date 1872 that has been proposed for the watercolour is perhaps a few years too late.