The best-known unknown woman in art: Beatrice Portinari 1

Henry Holiday (1839–1927), Dante meets Beatrice at Ponte Santa Trinita (1883), oil on canvas, 140 x 199 cm, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons.

On 11 February 1862, Lizzie, wife of the leading Pre-Raphaelite artist and writer Dante Gabriel Rossetti, died of an overdose of laudanum (tincture of opium) at the age of only 32. A couple of years later, Rossetti embarked on an unusual post-mortem portrait of her, in the role of Dante’s beloved Beatrice. Although Dante never revealed her true identity, many have believed her to represent Beatrice di Folco Portinari, who died even younger almost six hundred years earlier, at the age of only 25. Beata Beatrix is one of Rossetti’s major paintings.

Beata Beatrix c.1864-70 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), Beata Beatrix (c 1864–70), oil on canvas, 86.4 x 66 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by Georgiana, Baroness Mount-Temple in memory of her husband, Francis, Baron Mount-Temple 1889), London. Photographic Rights © Tate 2018, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

The strangest thing about Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix (c 1864–70) is that it represents a woman who, beyond Dante’s writing, is almost unknown. Yet she’s become one of the most painted women in history. This series of three articles looks at some of the better-known paintings of Beatrice, from before Rossetti’s image, during his career, and afterwards. This spans some of Europe’s most visionary artists, from William Blake to Odilon Redon.

Dante wrote about Beatrice in two of his most popular works: his youthful Vita Nuova, and in two of the three books in his Divine Comedy. Early commentators don’t appear to have made any association between his literary figure and a real person, let alone a married woman who, at best, only met Dante twice before her early death. Many scholars believe Dante’s figure to be symbolic rather than physical, which is more likely in her role in the Divine Comedy. Nevertheless, she has proved a popular subject, particularly during the nineteenth century.

Washington Allston (1779–1843), Beatrice (1819), oil on canvas, 76.8 x 64.4 cm, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Boston, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

The American Romantic artist and poet Washington Allston shows her in a straightforward portrait of Beatrice from 1819. He makes no literary allusions, although this is most likely to refer to Vita Nuova.

It was William Blake’s paintings for his unfinished illustrated edition of the Divine Comedy which started to explore her in the context of Dante’s narrative.

William Blake (1757–1827), Beatrice on the Car (Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’, ‘Purgatorio”, Canto 29) (1824-7), watercolour over graphite on paper, 36.7 x 52 cm, The British Museum, London. Courtesy of and © Trustees of the British Museum.

Beatrice on the Car, from 1824-27, shows her appearing in a chariot or ‘car’ in the midst of a religious procession, which takes place in the earthly paradise on the summit of the island-mountain of Purgatory.

Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car 1824-7 by William Blake 1757-1827
William Blake (1757–1827), Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car (Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’) (1824–7), ink and watercolour on paper, 37.2 x 52.7 cm, The Tate Gallery (Purchase with assistance of grants and donations 1919), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Blake’s most developed painting of her, Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car, from the same few years prior to his death, shows her admonishing Dante for his recent straying from the path of righteousness. This is rich with symbols and graphic devices, such as its vortex of heads and eyes, and the marvellous gryphon pulling Beatrice’s chariot.

Dante’s writings enjoyed a revival during the nineteenth century, bringing several other artists to use them as themes for their paintings, with the Divine Comedy the more common.

Carl Wilhelm Friedrich Oesterley (1805–1891), Dante and Beatrice (1845), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Carl Wilhelm Friedrich Oesterley’s more conventional and Romantic view of Beatrice and her chariot follows Dante’s description literally, even down to the colours of her clothing.

Andrea Pierini (1798–1858), The Meeting of Dante and Beatrice in Purgatory (1853), oil on canvas, 141 x 179 cm, Galleria d’arte moderna, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Andrea Pierini’s curiously antiquated version from 1853 is also quite literal.

Dyce, William, 1806-1864; Beatrice
William Dyce (1806–1864), Beatrice (1859), oil on panel, 65.2 x 49.4 cm, Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums, Aberdeen, Scotland. Wikimedia Commons.

William Dyce returned to portraiture style for his painting of Beatrice in 1859, when Rossetti was in full flight of his obsession with her. Dyce had considerable exposure to paintings of the Divine Comedy: when he was in Rome in 1827-28, he is thought to have been friends with Friedrich Overbeck, the Nazarene artist who had just been painting frescoes of Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered alongside others of the Divine Comedy, in the Casa Massimo. When he returned to London, Dyce was responsible for introducing the Pre-Raphaelites (including Rossetti) to the influential critic John Ruskin.

Dante's First Meeting with Beatrice 1859-63 by Simeon Solomon 1840-1905
Simeon Solomon (1840–1905), Dante’s First Meeting with Beatrice (1859–63), ink, watercolour and gouache on paper, 19.4 x 22.9 cm, The Tate Gallery (Bequeathed by Robert Ross through the Art Fund 1919), London. Photographic Rights © Tate 2018, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Others involved with the Pre-Raphaelites also adopted Beatrice as a theme. Simeon Solomon’s ink and watercolour painting of Dante’s First Meeting with Beatrice (1859–63) is taken from Vita Nuova, and its description of the two nine year-olds meeting in about 1274.

Henry Holiday (1839–1927), Dante meets Beatrice at Ponte Santa Trinita (1883), oil on canvas, 140 x 199 cm, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons.

The year after Rossetti’s death, another of those associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, Henry Holiday, painted the second occasion on which Dante claimed he met with his beloved, in Dante meets Beatrice at Ponte Santa Trinita (1883). Holiday devoted great effort to making this view as authentic as possible. In 1881, the year before Rossetti’s death, he travelled to Florence to make studies, and researched the buildings at the time, which he turned into clay models for a 3D reference. He also got John Trivett Nettleship, a noted animal painter, to paint the pigeons so that they were faithful.

None of this compares with the intensity and longevity of Rossetti’s obsession with Beatrice, the subject of the next article tomorrow.