Description: Sir Frank Dicksee, P.R.A. (1853-1928)
Study for 'La Belle Dame sans Merci'
pencil and watercolour heightened with touches of bodycolour and with scratching out on paper
8 5/8 x 11 1/8 in. (21.8 x 30.2 cm.)
Exhibited: Springfield, 1988, no. 10.
Provenance: with J.S. Maas, London, where purchased by the present owner.
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Dicksee came from a family of artists; his father, uncle, brother and sister were all painters and exhibited at the Royal Academy. Like many other artists of the time, they lived in Bloomsbury, the bohemian quarter of the day. He entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1870, being taught by Millais and won gold and silver medals. Dicksee began to exhibit at the Royal Academy in 1876. His name was made with Harmony (Tate Gallery), exhibited in 1877 it was hailed as the 'picture of the year' and became one of the first works bought for the Chantrey Bequest.
Dicksee was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1881 and a full Academician ten years later. Never marrying, he settled in 1898 at 3 Greville Place in St John's Wood, then popular with academic artists. In later years Dicksee received many honours, both at home and abroad. The climax of his career was his election as President of the Royal Academy in 1924. He was Knighted in 1925 and a KCVO two years later.
The present watercolour depicts Keats' poem (1819) and describes the encounter between a knight and a mysterious woman. It opens with a description of the knight in a barren landscape, 'haggard' and 'woe-begone'. He tells the reader how he met a beautiful lady who he set on his horse and she took him to her 'elfin grot', where she 'wept, and sigh'd full sore'. Falling asleep, the knight had a vision of 'pale kings and princes', who cried, 'La Belle Dame sans Merci hath thee in thrall!' He wakes to find himself on the same cold hillside after which he continues to wait 'palely loitering'. The knight is associated with images of death and is described as pale and withering. He may well be dead himself at the time of the story and is clearly doomed to remain on the hillside. More so than in the finished oil painting (fig. 1), the knight in the present watercolour certainly has a ghostly quality about him and the maiden appears ethereal and spirit-like. The subject of the femme fatale was popular amongst the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers, and La Belle Dame sans Merci was painted by Cadogan Cowper, Waterhouse, Arthur Hughes, Walter Crane, and Henry Meynell Rheam.
It was typical of Dicksee to express a Pre-Raphaelite subject in an academic style, for example his celebrated Chivalry (1885), sold in these Rooms, The Forbes Collection, 19 February 2003, lot 35, Harmony (1877) and The End of the Quest, (1921), Leighton House, London.
The painting for which the present drawing is a study was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1902 (no. 13).
For a watercolour by Dicksee of The Sensitive Plant see lot 39.