This study is for an oil painting now in the Tate collection. It was posed for by the artist's wife Elizabeth Siddal. The finished oil painting shows Siddal in virtually the same pose, though the dress in the painting is medieval, the lips are open and the eyes are closed.
The theme of the painting is explained in a letter from Rossetti to the Hon. Mrs. Cooper-Temple: "There is little need perhaps for my dwelling further on the picture's subject now that it is completed. You are well acquainted with Dante's 'Vita Nuova' which it illustrates, embodying, symbolically, the death of Beatrice as treated in that work. It must, of course, be remembered, in looking at the picture, that it is not at all intended to represent Death ... but to render it under the semblance of a trance, in which Beatrice seated at the balcony overlooking the City is suddenly rapt from Earth to Heaven. You will remember how much Dante dwells on the desolation of the city in connection with the incident of her death, and for this reason I have introduced it, as my background, and made the figure of Dante and Love passing through the street and gazing ominously at one another, conscious of the event, whilst the bird, a messenger of death, drops a poppy between the hands of Beatrice. She sees through her shut lids, is conscious of a new world, as expressed in the last words of the 'Vita Nuova': 'Quella beata Beatrice che gloriosamente mira nella fascia die colui qui est per omnia soecula benedictus.'"
The date at which the painting was begun is uncertain. According to Virginia Surtees, the generally accepted version that it was not begun until after Elizabeth Siddal's death from an overdose of laudanum is incorrect. A letter from Rossetti to Ellen Heaton mentions that he had "lately found a commencement of a life size head of my wife in oil, begun many years ago as a picture of Beatrice; it is only laid in and the canvas is in a very bad state, but it is possible I might be able to work it up successfully either on this or another canvas, and should like to do so if possible as it was carefully begun. The picture was to represent Beatrice falling asleep by a wall bearing a sundial; and I have pencil sketches for it as a half figure comprising the arms and hands".