Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Little-known picture by Pre-Raphaelite artist goes on public display at Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery

A portrait of the Pre-Raphaelite’s muse may have been kept out of sight to keep the artist’s stock high

A little-known picture by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti is going on public display for the first time this week, 135 years after it was painted.

The Salutation of Beatrice is a late addition to an exhibition opening at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool on 12 February, which will explore the support that the city and local patrons gave to the Pre-Raphaelites. 

Ann Bukantas, head of fine art at National Museums Liverpool, said that, with a movement as popular as the Pre-Raphaelites, it was rare to find pictures that had not been exhibited. “The painting is part of filling in the gaps of the Rossetti story, the same way our exhibition is filling in a gap in the way the  Pre-Raphaelite story has been told,” she said. 

“None of the previous  Pre-Raphaelite exhibitions have explored the significance of Liverpool in the development of the movement and how artists in Liverpool responded to it.”

The Salutation of Beatrice (1881-82), painted shortly before the artist’s death in April 1882, illustrates lines from the second sonnet in medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s Vita Nuova (New Life). It depicts Rossetti’s muse Jane Morris, wife of the Pre-Raphaelite painter William Morris, as Beatrice Portinari, the subject of the poet’s unrequited love. The spurned Dante is in the background. 

The painting belonged to Rossetti’s friend and patron Frederick Richards Leyland, a ship owner and art collector from Liverpool, and is now owned by Leyland’s descendants. On Rossetti’s death, it was finished by someone else in his studio.

It is the second and slightly smaller of two versions of the same picture; the first is in the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio. Leyland originally owned the first version, and acquired the second after Rossetti’s death. 

The art historian Christopher Newall, an expert in the Pre-Raphaelites ,who curated the show, said we can only wonder why Leyland bought the second version – whether it was because he “felt he had a kind of claim on that particular composition” and did not want anyone else to have it, or because he had two houses. 

The reason why Rossetti painted two versions of the same painting was “a matter of speculation”, he said. “Rossetti was very short of money towards the end of his life and had fallen really quite on hard times. He’d lived in this huge house in Chelsea, in Cheyne Walk. The costs of living there were beyond him. 

“He was in difficult circumstances and he wasn’t physically well, so it is possible that he embarked on what you could call either a version or a replica of the subject, because he thought he would capitalise on the existing image. 

“Maybe that’s why Leyland decided to own it: because he didn’t want to see the currency of that particular image degraded, as it were.”

While there are “unresolved dimensions” to the painting, Mr Newall said its subject was typical of Rossetti, who painted a series of the poet Dante’s subjects and had depicted Beatrice in previous works.

The Salutation of Beatrice will hang alongside two other Rossettis owned by Leyland’s descendants: Monna Rosa, an 1867 portrait of Leyland’s wife, Frances, which has not been displayed publicly for more than 140 years; and an 1870 chalk portrait of Leyland, never previously put on show. 

Pre-Raphaelites: Beauty and Rebellion, which runs until 5 June, will feature more than 120 paintings, including other works held out of public view in private collections. Artists besides Rossetti include John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Ford Madox Brown.