Dante and Beatrice. 1883. Oil on canvas; 56 x 80 inches (142.2 x 203.2 cm). Collection of the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, accession no. WAG 3125. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Dante and Beatrice is the painting for which Holiday is best known. Beatrice Portinari was the daughter of a noble Florentine family and the young woman Dante fell in love with in his early youth. In Dante Alighieri’s masterpiece La Vita Nuova he described his first meeting with her in the year 1274, at a May Feast given by her father Folco Portinari. Although Beatrice was only eight years old at the time, and Dante not much older, he felt that "from that time forward, Love governed my soul." Dante immortalised her in La Vita Nuova by making her the personification of beauty, wisdom, and spiritual perfection.

Dante and Beatrice was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in April 1883, no. 165, accompanied by the following quotation from the Vita Nuova: “And by reason of this…that most gentle lady, who was the destroyer of all vice and queen of the virtues, passing by a certain way denied me her sweet salutation, in which was all my blessedness.” Holiday had been a great admirer of Dante since his youth and around 1875 he started studying Italian so that he could read La Vita Nuova in its original language. This was not the first painting based on Dante that Holiday had executed. In 1861 he had exhibited a Dante and Beatrice at the Royal Academy, no. 649. This painting depicted an earlier incident from La Vita Nuova of their first meeting at a banquet in the house of Beatrice’s father, Folco Portinari. Holiday’s friend Simeon Solomon also treated this subject of Dante’s First Meeting with Beatrice in a pen-and-ink drawing of 1859-63, now in the Tate Britain.

Holiday’s early mentor Dante Gabriel Rossetti may have at least partially inspired his love for Dante. The work by Rossetti closest to this particular subject in the story of Dante and Beatrice is his 1851 watercolour Beatrice meeting Dante at a Marriage Feast denies him her Salutation. Holiday himself described the subject of his painting to his friend Dean Kitchen in a letter of October 6, 1881:

The scene lies on the Lung’ Arno. Dante is crossing the Ponte Santa Trinità and sees Beatrice and three ladies coming along the Lung’ Arno from the Ponte Vecchio, Beatrice, having heard some gossiping tales against Dante, cuts him and he is sadly distressed. You remember the passage, doubtless. The place where they met is not mentioned but I assume it to be as I have described. I wanted to get on the spot the general lie of the lines - the perspective, in fact, of the buildings and still more the sense of color, and as far as possible to collect such fragments as remain of the buildings of Dante’s time, so as to be able to alter the details to the character of the period. [Morris, Victorian & Edwardian Paintings, 220]

Models for the Painting

In Holiday’s painting he shows Beatrice as the central figure in white walking alongside the Arno River in Florence with her companion Monna Vanna (Giovanna) to her right. Another woman, presumably a maidservant, walks in the rear to Beatrice’s left. Morris suggests that “The artist seems to have intended to achieve a dramatic contrast between the demure, reserved, other-worldly Beatrice and the more flamboyant, extrovert, demonstrative Monna Vanna with her remarkable and quite unhistorical dress” (218-19). Monna Vanna was the mistress of Dante’s friend and fellow poet Guido Cavalcanti. In 1881 Holiday began to make studies for the heads of the principal figures. Eleanor Butcher was the model for Beatrice and Milly Hughes for Monna Vanna. The young attendant was modelled from Katherine “Kitty” Lushington, the daughter of Vernon Lushington. Mrs. George Gilbert Scott modelled for the woman leaning over the balcony in the left background. Gaetano Meo modelled for Dante, but his facial features were taken from a death mask of his face, presumably the Torrigiani mask in the Bargello Museum in Florence, in combination with the youthful profile of the poet in the fresco by Giotto on the wall of the Chapel of the Podestà in the Bargello. Holiday’s friend Alfred Schultz-Curtius modelled for Dante’s hands

Holiday’s Research in Venice for Realistic Details

In late September 1881 Holiday had gone to Florence to make sketches for the background of the picture because he felt it would be impossible to treat the subject satisfactorily without studying the scene on the spot. In the painting Dante is seen standing on at one end of the Ponte Santa Trinità with the Ponte Vecchio in the background and the basilica San Miniato al Monte in the far distance. Holiday researched the appearance of late thirteenth-century Florence and discovered that it was paved with bricks at that time. The herringbone style brick paving portrayed in the painting was copied from an example he found in Sienna. Holiday studied pictures of the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries for details of what the houses looked like in Dante’s time. Holiday went to extraordinary lengths to get his details correct and made many preliminary drawing studies. He also modelled in clay statuettes of Beatrice and Monna Vanna, both nude and draped, a bust of Dante, and a clay model of the houses seen across the Arno. The painting was begun in October 1882 but was still unfinished when it was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in April 1883. The painting was eventually completed with the aid of J. T. Nettleship, who painted the pigeons in the foreground. It was subsequently exhibited at the Liverpool Annual Exhibition in September 1884, no. 212, which is where the Walker Art Gallery acquired it.

The Painting’s Reception

When the painting was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1883 the critics, in general, were not enthusiastic about it. F. G. Stephens writing in The Athenaeum found the perspective defective and the refined technique uninteresting: “Dante and Beatrice (165) is by Mr. H. Holiday. Despite the highly artistic painting and modelling of the dresses of the three ladies who meet the poet, and the skill employed in all the figures of the design, which is of a noble kind, this elaborate picture is one of Mr. Holiday’s mistakes. It would be difficult to say where the error lies, although it is evidently radical. The red pavement rises against our faces, as artists say, it is so defective in perspective. The very refined technique is peculiarly uninteresting; it is perfectly respectable, but undeniably weak” (609). Cosmo Monkhouse in The Academy gave it faint praise although he did find it charming:

Pure and sweet in colour and sentiment is Mr. H. Holiday’s ‘Dante and Beatrice’ (165), with the poet standing by the Ponte S. Trinità, while his lady-love and her friends in gay raiment saunter with careless grace along the Lung’ Arno. The streets are perhaps too empty, the raiment is perhaps too gay, the whole scene too set, its poetry and its realism are scarcely harmonized; but it is charming, nevertheless, and enables us to feel vividly how grievous a thing it was to be denied ‘her sweet salutation.’” [316]

The reviewer for The Builder was particularly scathing is his remarks: “Mr. Holiday’s ‘Dante and Beatrice’ (165), a supposed scene in Old Florence, is as hard as hard can be, and very deficient in character in the figures; it brings us no whit nearer to the reality of Dante and Beatrice, and if a picture on such a subject does not do so, where is the value of it?” (594).

In contrast, The Art Journal, when discussing the engraved illustration of the painting published in their 1884 edition, admired the mystical simplicity with which medieval Florence was portrayed: “Mr. Henry Holiday has always used his art for decorative purposes, and, if I remember right, has painted fewer incidents than allegorical or monumental groups. In ‘Dante and Beatrice’ he has the loveliest city scenery in Europe in which to place his figures, and the noble profile and austere draperies of the young Dante to set before a background of the Arno and the Ponte Vecchio. And in the incident he has chosen appears in all its exquisiteness that mystical simplicity which so utterly differentiates the life of mediaeval Florence from the life of modern London” (7).


“Our Illustrations.” The Art Journal XLVI (1884): 7-8.

“The Grosvenor Gallery.” The Builder XLIV (May 5, 1883): 593-95

Holiday, Henry. Reminiscences of My Life. London: Heinemann, 1914, 277-81.

Cormack, Peter. Henry Holiday 1839–1927. London: William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow, 1989, cat. 77, 14.

Monkhouse, Cosmo. “The Grosvenor Gallery.” The AcademyXXIII (May 5, 1883): 316-17.

Morris, Edward. Victorian & Edwardian Paintings in the Walker Art Gallery & at Sudley House. London: HMSO Publications Centre, 1996, 218-223.

Stephens, Frederic George. “The Grosvenor Gallery Exhibition.” The Athenaeum No. 2898 (May 12, 1883): 608-10.

Last modified 16 January 2023