This painting by English artist Arthur Hughes was acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria in 1919 with funds from the Felton Bequest. It portrays a scene from the well-known ballad of the same name penned in 1819 by Romantic poet John Keats. The poem is a tale of unrequited love featuring an Arthurian knight and a beautiful woman he meets in the woods. Described by Keats as a ‘faery’s child’, the woman woos the knight with songs, food and promises of love, before taking him back to her elfin grot and lulling him to sleep. While asleep, however, he dreams of death-pale kings, princes and warriors crying “La Belle Dame sans merci/Thee hath in thrall!” before waking up alone on a cold hillside. In the painting, the infatuated knight is pictured in the woods shortly after he has met the beautiful woman and lifted her onto his horse. In the background, the apparitions of the pale figures he will later dream of are visible, trying to convey their warning in vain. Keats borrowed the title for his Arthurian ballad from a fifteenth-century courtly love poem by Alain Chartier.
For a copy of Keats’ La Belle Dame sans merci, see http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173740.