'Dante and Beatrice' was the most important painting by Henry Holiday. The theme of the painting is inspired by the autobiography Vita Nuova of the medieval poet Dante (1265-1321). Dante concealed his love for Beatrice by pretending to be attracted by other women. The scene depicted in the painting is that of Beatrice refusing to greet Dante because of the gossip that had reached her. Beatrice is the woman dressed in white and she was modelled by Eleanor Butcher. The woman next to Beatrice is Monna Vanna, a companion of Beatrice and the mistress of Dante's friend Guido Cavalcanti. Monna Vanna was modelled by Milly Hughes.
Holiday was introduced to both models through friends. In the painting the stern almost statuesque expression of Beatrice contrasts with the posture of Monna Vanna who not only appears to support Beatrice's decision but looks back to Dante's reaction. The maidservant behind Beatrice was modelled from Kitty Lushington, the daughter of a well-known judge.
Holiday was greatly interested in the medieval poet Dante. As early as 1860 he painted another scene from Vita Nuova, the meeting of the poet and Beatrice when children in her father's garden, with the aim of exhibiting at the Royal Academy Exhibition. In 1875 Holiday painted a portrait of Dante. The Walker Art Gallery owns three sketches Holiday made for the 'Dante and Beatrice' painting: two of the sketches show all three figures with an additional maiden, while the third sketch is of Dante himself. Holiday had also made a plaster statuette of the two female figures nude to which he later added clothes in plaster. This statuette of the two clothed figures is also in the Walker's collection.
Holiday was concerned with the historically accurate representation of the scene and in 1881 he visited Florence to carry out research for his painting. In a letter from Florence he describes the project : "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 colour, and as far as possible to collect such fragments as remain of buildings of Dante's time, so as to be able to alter the details to the character of the period. "
Holiday decided to depict the scene at the Ponte Santa Trinita looking towards the Ponte Vecchio along the Lungarno. From his research he discovered that the Lungarno was paved with bricks and that in the 13th century there were already shops in the area which he included in the painting. Holiday painted the Ponte Vecchio with scaffolding because he had found out that the bridge was destroyed by a flood in 1235 and was still under construction around 1285-90.
The most outstanding features of the painting seem to be the view of Florence in Medieval times and the costumes of the figures rather than the spiritual content, as in the case of Rossetti's, 'Dante's Dream' (also on display in Room 5). The dresses of Beatrice and the maidservant are medieval whereas Monna Vanna's dress derives from antiquity. In 1892 Holiday became editor of the journal Aglaia, the journal of the Healthy and Artistic Dress. In 1896 'Dante and Beatrice' was used for a tableau vivant (a living picture) at St. George's Hall in Liverpool as part of a presentation illustrating past, present and future dress. The presentation was organised by the Healthy and Artistic Dress Union
Henry Holiday was a painter as well as an established stained glass artist who had commissions both in England (Trinity College Cambridge, Birkenhead New Ferry Liverpool, St.James's Church, Kirkby Church and Huyton Church in Liverpool) and America (amongst others the Holy Trinity Church in Manhattan New York). He was also an illustrator, his most important illustrations being the ones he made for Lewis Carroll's book 'The Hunting of the Snark'.
Holiday was the youngest student of painting at the Royal Academy Schools in 1855. Like many of the young artists of his time Holiday was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite painters. Early in his career he was praised by the painter Millais (1829-1898) and was in contact with artists such as Holman Hunt (1827-90), Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) and D.G. Rossetti (1828-1882). Holiday also knew the critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) who encouraged the young painter.
In 1862 Holiday's career as a stained glass artist was launched when he succeeded the artist Edward Burne-Jones as the designer for the glass manufacturing company Messrs. Powell and Sons. Edward Burne-Jones had moved to William Morris's company. The painter Albert Moore (1841-1893) (his work Summer Night also on display in Room 5) had recommended Holiday as an efficient draughtsman.
On his first visit to Italy, in 1867, Holiday was inspired by the way Renaissance artists broke new ground from Gothic art and reflected their times. In his paper 'Modernism in Art' which Holiday read to the Architectural Association in 1890 Holiday asserted: 'all great art is modern when it is produced' and 'no art is genuine which is not modern in the sense of expressing the best of which the artist and his age are capable'.
Holiday's designs for the memorial window in Westminster Abbey and the west windows of St. Mary Magdalene's church in Paddington reflected the influence of Italian Renaissance art on his work. Later on, in 1891 Holiday became dissatisfied with the working methods of the commercial stained glass firms and set off to establish his own workshop in Hampstead in London.