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'Lorenzo and Isabella', John Everett Millais

Men and women at a banquet

  • Oil on canvas 103 cm x 142.8 cm (40" x 56")
  • Signed and dated JE Millais 1849 PRB (monogram)
  • The initials PRB also appear on the side of Isabella's stool.
  • Walker Art Gallery

Millais's first Pre-Raphaelite painting, was painted during 1848 when he was 19 years old. The subject is taken from Keats's poem 'Isabella' or 'The Pot of Basil'. The painting is also sometimes simply known as 'Isabella'. When exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1849, the following quotation from the poem was included in the catalogue:

Fair Isabel, poor simple Isabel!
Lorenzo, a young palmer in Love's eye!
They could not in the self-same mansion dwell
Without some stir of heart, some malady;
They could not sit at meals but feel how well
It soothed each to be the other by.
These brethren having found by many signs
What love Lorenzo for their sister had,
And how she lov'd him too, each unconfines
His bitter thoughts to other, well nigh mad
That he, the servant of their trade designs
Should in their sister's love be blithe and glad
When 'twas their plan to coax her by degrees
To some high noble and his olive trees.

Keats's source for this poem was a tale by the 14th century Italian author, Bocaccio, and the story is broadly as follows: Lorenzo and Isabella were deeply in love with each other. Isabella was the daughter of a rich and greedy Florentine merchant family to which Lorenzo was apprenticed. Discovering their sister's love for Lorenzo, Isabella's brothers plotted to kill Lorenzo. They lured him into a wood and there murdered him. Isabella pined for her love and in a vision saw the spot where he had been killed. She found his grave and dug up his body. Then cutting off Lorenzo's head and taking it home, she kept it hidden in a flowerpot in which she planted the sweet smelling herb, basil. Eventually her brothers discovered her macabre secret and stole the pot of basil, and full off guilt, they fled to Florence. Isabella grew weak through sorrow, and died.

Keats's poetry was a major preoccupation with the Brotherhood. Rossetti first read his poems in 1845 and thought him 'the greatest modern poet'. Hunt discovered Keats's work in 1848 and introduced Millais to his verse. Hunt and Millais planned to produce a series of etchings for book illustrations of Keats's 'Isabella'. Millais worked up his drawings into this large painting. Hunts work on the project did not get beyond the drawing stage.

Hunt later suggested that Keats's work played a major part in uniting the group. In 1848, Keats was little known outside of a small group of devotees. His work had remained unpublished after his death in 1821. The Pre- Raphaelites were particularly attracted to the medieval themes in Keats's poems rather than to his classical subjects and it was the moral intensity of both 'Isabella' and 'The Eve of St Agnes' that they felt made them suitable as subjects. Both had the 'high seriousness' which the Brotherhood wished to characterise their work.