Isabella card


WAG 1637

On display


In this Victorian version of high-definition reality, Isabella, sister of rich Florentine merchants, shares an orange with poor apprentice Lorenzo - their love symbolized by roses, passionflowers and faithful dog. But there's a menacing undercurrent. The orange is a blood-orange. Her three brothers want to increase their fortune by marrying Isabella to a wealthy husband. Lorenzo's in the way. They lean or gesture threateningly towards the couple while the rest of the family, eyes averted, resolutely ignore what's going on. The nearest brother, snarling, explodes with pent-up violence, cracking a nut and kicking the dog. The initials PRB on Isabella's stool stand for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, founded in 1848, the year of this picture. The artist, John Everett Millais, only nineteen, was one of the founders. They'd met at the Royal Academy, and were now challenging its teaching that the Italian artist Raphael was the ideal. They felt Raphael's paintings were too beautiful - not realistic enough - and that art no longer conveyed meaning. They wanted to go back to the thirteen hundreds - before Raphael - when they thought art was more sincere. If you've already seen the Simone Martini painting, you'll remember the bright colours. Millais wanted to achieve a similar effect - also painting on white as medieval artists did to enhance their vibrancy. He exaggerates the medieval lack of spatial depth through harsh, even lighting and distortion, particularly in the cardboard-cutout-like family. To be true to reality he depicts every single object - natural or man-made - with equal precision. The characters are even modeled on real people. The man with the napkin is Millais' father, the man draining his glass is the artist Rossetti. The aggressive brother is probably a fellow Academy student. In this bold, painted manifesto of Pre-Raphaelite aims, Millais, to make his point, has exaggerated the reality to such an extent it's become unreal. By now you may have spotted more details symbolising what happens next in the story. The brothers murder Lorenzo. Finding his body, Isabella cuts off his head and buries it on the verandah, in a pot of basil - watered with her tears.