Blind to the beauties of the surrounding meadows and wooded hillsides, a young knight in polished armour dramatically throws back his arms and appears to surrender himself to the lady bending down from the majestic horse – as if to kiss him.
La Belle Dame sans Merci (1901) by DICKSEE, Sir FrankBristol Museums
The subject of this painting is taken from Keats’ poem of 1819, a rather morbid meditation in which the knight is left ‘so haggard and so woe-begone’ after his encounter with ‘la belle dame sans merci.’
However, the only allusion here to a sinister outcome is the blighted leaves brushing the knight’s arm.
The predominant mood is one of enchantment, intensified by the idyllic setting of the English countryside
'I met a lady in the meads, Full beautiful – a faery’s child, Her hair was long, her foot was light, And her eyes were wild…
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.'
Frank Dicksee did not depict the dark outcome of the story, which leaves
the knight devastated, but focuses the composition on the seductive power
of the femme fatale.
A fascination with chivalry had existed throughout
the Victorian era, typically combining romantic escapism with a cautionary note of the 'femme fatale'.
But this painting reflects a rising anxiety over gender roles at the turn of the 20th century.
Dicksee demonstrates an innovative approach to the subject in his use of vibrant colours and dramatic spatial construction.
La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad
John Keats, 1819