Dante's Dream on the Day of the Death of Beatrice: 9th of June, 1290

Alternately titled: Dante's Dream at the Time of the Death of Beatrice

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1875?
Date: 1856


◦ Gregory, “Life and Works of DGR” vol. 2, 143.

◦ Marillier, DGR: An Illustrated Memorial, 72-73, 165-168, 184, 205.

◦ Sharp, DGR: A Record and a Study, 151-152, 216-226.

◦ Stephens, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 77-78.

◦ Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné vol. 1, 42-48.

◦ Bennett, Pre-Raphaelite Circle, 173-177.

Scholarly Commentary


The subject, taken from Dante's Vita Nuova, remained a central one for DGR throughout his life, as the history of all his work shows. He first thought to illustrate it in 1848, as he told Charles Lyell in a letter of 14 November (see Fredeman, Correspondence 48. 12 ), but didn't actually set to work on a picture until seven years later. There are three sets of texts that relate to this work, while on the pictorial side is a large body of materials, though in fact only two key paintings, the 1856 watercolour and the large 1871 oil replica. The latter was redone as a smaller replica in oil for Graham when the latter refused to buy the large oil replica.

The textual point of departure is the canzone translated by DGR as “A very pitiful lady, very young”. The particular locus is lines 64-70 of the canzone, which is incoporated into DGR's translation of the Vita Nuova. A fair copy manuscript of DGR's translation of this passage survives that dates from 1848 or 1849. DGR quotes the passage at the head of the prose ekphrasis he probably wrote in 1874 to accompany the large oil painting he had finished in 1871. The ekphrasis is the second text that “doubles” the picture. A third is the pair of texts DGR wrote “For the Predella of the Picture. Dante's Dream”.

The two key paintings are the watercolor done for Ellen Heaton in 1856 and the monumental oil he undertook in 1869 on commission for William Graham.

Most important for DGR in this moment of the Beatricean myth is the “dream” element, which locates the presence of spiritual authorities in Dante's life. When DGR takes up the subject in his (belated) turn, the authority gets transferred from the religious to the aesthetic level. As the prose ekphrasis suggests, the picture is an elaborated interpretation of the relation of dream and art. Dante's canzone stands in relation to DGR's picture as the original dream stood in relation to the canzone. DGR's work means to argue that explanatory power operates in an inverse ratio to the level of the interpretation's rational or conceptual form.

Textual History: Composition

DGR's translation of the Vita Nuova seems to have been in process between about 1846 and 1861; at any rate, he clearly worked at it from time to time over that period. The text of the canzone that he prints with his prose ekphrasis is taken from the 1874 printing of the poem, not the 1861 printing. The ekphrasis must have been written and even printed well before 1881 because it is mentioned in a letter to Treffry Dunn that seems to date from the mid-1870s. The texts for the twin predellas were probably written at the time he finished them in 1880.

Production History

The first sketches for a picture were made in 1855 when DGR was working toward the watercolor he completed in 1856 for Ellen Heaton, to whom he wrote the following description of the work: “The figures (all foreground ones) are, Dante, the dead Beatrice, two other ladies & an angelic figure representing Love, who is introduced as a person throughout the Vita Nuova; & there is a good deal of accessory matter, the drawing being, unless I am much mistaken, considerably more than double the size of the Rachel & Leah, and it is in every respect a much better drawing than that one, which I undertook not at my own suggestion, and the subject of which never interested me” (see Fredeman, Correspondence 56. 12 ). Years later (September 1863) he asked Ellen Heaton to borrow the picture because “I have some serious thoughts of beginning at once an oil picture on a considerable scale of the same subject as your drawing of Dante's Dream” ( Fredeman, Correspondence 63. 88 ). He didn't begin this oil painting until 1869, when he was commissioned to the work by William Graham, and when he again borrowed Ellen Heaton's watercolour to help guide him in the work ( Fredeman, Correspondence 68. 4 ). That picture was finished in 1871 but was refused by Graham as being too large. DGR did some repainting on the picture during the 1870s, and it eventually was sold to the city of Liverpool in 1881. DGR later did a smaller replica in oil for Graham, which he worked on between 1878 and 1880, when he finished the two predellas that were part of the work.


The prose ekphrasis gives a detailed explication of the picture's iconography.

Printing History

The date of the broadside printing is uncertain but it seems to have been made in the mid-1870s. It would have been the first printing. It was also later published (in part) in The Athenaeum (1 Nov. 1879, p. 567 and 20 August 1881, p. 250). It was printed complete in the catalogue for the Walker Art Gallery's Liverpool Autumn Exhibition (1881). The texts for the twin predellas were not printed until 1911.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1