Technique in 'Lorenzo and Isabella'
Millais's colouring is bright and vibrant and in several parts of the picture appears to follow the 'wet white ground' canon of painting worked out by the Brotherhood.
Hunt described the technique used thus: 'select a prepared ground, originally for its brightness, and renovate it, if necessary, with fresh white when first it comes into the studio, white to be mixed with a very little amber or copal varnish. Let this last coat become a thoroughly stone-like hardness. Upon this surface complete with exactness the outline of the part in hand. On the morning for the painting, with fresh white (from which all superfluous oil has been extracted by means of absorbent paper, and to which again a small drop of varnish has been added) spread a further coat very evenly with a palette knife over the part for the day's work, of such consistency that the drawing should faintly show through.
In some cases the thickened white may be applied to the forms needing brilliancy with a brush, by the aid of rectified spirits. Over this wet ground, the colour (transparent and semi-transparent) should be laid with light sable brushes, and the touches must be made so tenderly that the ground below should not be worked up, yet so far enticed to blend with the superimposed tints as to correct the qualities of thinness and staininess, which over a dry ground transparent colours used would inevitably exhibit. Painting of this kind cannot be retouched except with an entire loss of luminosity.'
In his attempt to follow another of the Brotherhood's precepts of 'truth to nature', Millais used several of his friends as models for the figures. Rossetti served as the model figure nearest the wall on the right hand side and Millais's father was used for the figure of Isabella's father seated in the middle of the right hand row. (It is apocryphal that he shaved off his beard to look more accurately Florentine). The costumes were based upon Bonnard's illustrated 'Costume Historique' (1829) and the maiolica plates are probably of Millais's own invention but based upon 15th century originals. There are a number of anachronisms in the picture including the 19th-century two handled cup.
Millais has deliberately tried to flatten space in this picture to achieve the same look as early Italian painting. All the figures with the exception of Lorenzo, are in profile, reminiscent of Renaissance portraits. There is something disturbing about the figures on the right hand side of the table, crushed together like overlapping playing cards. The depth of the table from front to back is approximately five feet. The seven people seated along one side would in reality occupy at least ten feet. Millais's distortion of perspective was a deliberate attempt to reproduce the shallow depth of those early Italian pictures that the Brotherhood so admired.
A spatial distortion can also be seen in the archway which unites the heads of the two lovers. In order to keep clearly visible the symbolic image of the uniting arch, Millais has not allowed the pillar above Isabella's head to recede into space. When this painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy, it was well displayed and received mixed critical praise. However no reviewer commented on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) inscription on Isabella's seat or queried the use of the same three letters in Millais's signature.
The painting was bought on the art market by Liverpool Corporation in 1884 for £1050.