Blake's painting shows the richly symbolic and religious nature of the long poem by Dante, which is considered one of the world’s greatest contributions to literature. True to the subject matter of the Dante poem the artwork deals with an imaginary view of the afterlife presented as reward or punishment and describes the writer's travels though purgatory, hell and paradise. In this particular painting which depicts the opening incident in the narrative, Dante is pictured fleeing from some dark woods pursued by ferocious animals that are meant to represent worldly sins. The other figure represents the Roman poet Virgil who acts as Dante’s guide as he traverses the many frightening circles of hell and purgatory.
Blake was influenced by the bible and mystical and religious themes from an early age, and this had a profound effect on the young boy. His artistic inclinations began when his father purchased copies of drawings of Greek antiquities that he used to undertake engravings. These type of drawings exposed Blake to classical forms such as the work of Michelangelo, Raphael and Albrecht Dürer. Due to Blake's early love of engraving he was later apprenticed for seven years to James Basire, after which Blake became a professional engraver at the age of 21. After copying images in Gothic churches around London including Westminster Abbey, Blake began to form his own artistic ideas and style.
After a later apprenticeship at the Royal Academy, Blake further developed his abstract religious and mythical themes and ‘Dante running from the three beasts' perfectly captures the artist's penchant for classical style and mystical theme. In the painting the picture has a Gothic yet slightly faded quality. The dramatic posture of Dante is shown in relief against that of his guide, Virgil, and the sea and sky have an unearthly quality. The animals are shown as ravening beasts from one of the many circles descending into hell, and look poised to attack the writer if he does not make a hasty retreat.
William Blake's life was characterised by religion and mysticism, and he also claimed to have many visions of a religious nature. Although he was not recognised or revered during his lifetime, the painting is a culmination of the themes of his life and art and demonstrates the abstract and Gothic qualities that he later became renowned for.