Friday 24 May 2019

What Lies Beneath: La Belle Dame sans Merci by Sir Frank Dicksee

La Belle Dame sans Merci by Sir Frank Dicksee, Oil on canvas, courtesy Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

La Belle Dame sans Merci by Sir Frank Dicksee
La Belle Dame sans Merci by Sir Frank Dicksee

Niall MacMonagle

If ever a woman seduced, if ever a man were seduced, this is it.

On April 21, 1819, John Keats wrote La Belle Dame sans Merci and the ballad has haunted readers ever since. The title, Keats borrowed from a poem written in 1424 but the story of a knight falling in love with a beautiful, elfin woman, is Keats's own.

The poem is haunting the Leaving Cert Class of 2018 to this very day (will Keats come up on Thursday?) and Keats's poem obviously haunted Frank Dicksee who spent the years from 1901 to 1903 working on this magnificent canvas, which spans 4.5ft by 6ft.

The poem begins and ends against a wintry landscape but the middle stanzas remember a magical moment when the knight-at-arms meets "a lady in the meads,/ Full beautiful - a faery's child,/ Her hair was long, her foot was light,/ And her eyes were wild" and becomes infatuated.

And it's this moment that Dicksee chose to paint.

The distant gorgeous sky, the purple hills, the woods, the glimpse of the lake, the rolling meadow, beautiful flowers, that leafy fringe enclose the central drama.

Upon the pacing steed, head down, submissive, bedecked, Lady Redhead is seated side-saddle in a flowing, luxurious, rhubarb dress, cascading flowing hair to match.

Though he's been polishing up that armour, he no longer looks in control of anything. With eyes for no one or nothing but her, this is infatuation.

"I set her on my pacing steed,/ And nothing else saw all day long;/ For side long would she bend, and sing/ A faery's song." This femme fatale is in control. She's tall in the saddle, he looks up, his outstretched arms surrendering.

Dicksee and his sister Margaret were taught by their artist father Thomas Dicksee and both produced works that drew on historical subjects such as Romeo and Juliet, The Passing of Arthur, his, The Child Handel, Swift and Stella, hers.

When Frank Dicksee responded to Keats's poem he turned chivalry on its head and in 1925, three years before he died, aged 74, Dicksee received his own knighthood.

This La Belle Dame is no damsel in distress - and though the painting captures an intense moment when Knight and Lady Beautiful meet in a field of flowers, our knowing that it didn't turn into a bed of roses makes it all the more haunting.

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