About the artwork
William Holman Hunt called it ‘the most wonderful painting that any youth still under twenty years of age ever did in the world'. John Everett Millais was nineteen. Hunt himself was 22, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the third co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, was 21. They were, according to John Ruskin, ‘very young men’ who believed ‘that the principles on which art has been taught for three hundred years are essentially wrong, and that the principles which ought to guide us are those which prevailed before the time of Raphael.’
Isabella was Millais’ first essay in a manner of painting intended to revive the austerity, formalism and accurate draughtsmanship of the early Renaissance. The initials P.R.B. appear, not only in the monogram that follows his signature, but in the form of carved inscription at the base of Isabella’s stool.
The subject of the painting derives from John Keats’ 'Isabella or the Pot of Basil' and when first exhibited at the Royal Academy of 1849, it was accompanied by the following verses from the poem:
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 t’was their plan to coax her by degrees
To some high noble and his olive trees.
The tragic story (taken by Keats from the fourteenth century Italian writer Boccaccio’s Decameron) tells of the doomed love of Isabella, daughter of a noble family, for Lorenzo the household’s steward. Her brothers, determined that she marry money and increase the family’s wealth, murder Lorenzo and bury his body in a forest. Isabella sees, in a dream, the location of her lover’s grave, retrieves his head and hides it in a pot of basil which she waters with her tears.
In Millais’ composition, the love of Lorenzo and Isabella is indicated by the white rose and passion flower entwined in the arch above their heads, and by the blood orange they share. Lorenzo’s devotion is echoed by the dog resting its head in his mistress’ lap. The brother’s kick, is aimed at the dog and, by proxy, at Lorenzo.
Elsewhere in the picture, murder is prefigured: another brother hold up a glass of blood-like wine; a hawk pecks at a white feather; salt, symbol of life, is spilt on the table; scenes of violence decorate the majolica plates; the pot of basil stands ready on the balcony to receive the murdered man’s head.
The characters were painted from life, Millais using friends and relatives as models. The wife of his half brother sat for Isabella and Rossetti’s brother William for Lorenzo. Rossetti himself can be identified tilting a wine glass to his lips at the far end of the table and Millais’ father dabs his mouth with a napkin. The villainous brother kicking the dog is said to have been modelled on John Harris, a student who had been particularly unkind to Millais at the Royal Academy Schools.
For all the meticulous attention to detail characteristic of Pre-Raphaelite art, the picture is far from realistic. When we look at the world, our eyesight brings into sharp focus only that which is of most interest or importance. The effect of looking at a Pre-Raphaelite picture such as this, in which every inch of the composition is delineated with microscopic clarity, is to have everything stressed as being of equal significance.
It is the optical equivalent of reading a text IN WHICH EVERY SINGLE WORD IS EMPHASISED AND GIVEN THE SAME WEIGHT. Also, because the same degree of clarity is imparted to the background as to the fore - and middle - grounds, there is little illusion of depth or recession.
The resulting flatness is accentuated by the fact that all the protagonists, with the single exception of Lorenzo, appear in profile as if inhabiting a two-dimensional world of overlapping playing cards. Finally, there is a spatial ambiguity. Is the open windowed area on the right of the composition on the same plane as the tapestry-covered wall, or at right-angles to it? Either visual reading is possible.