My favourite Pre-Raphaelite artist is, without doubt, John Everett Millais and I have featured a number of his paintings in previous blogs. As you know, as I have mentioned it before, I like paintings with a story behind what is depicted by the artist and so merging my two favourite aspects of art I am delighted to present you with Millais’ painting entitled Isabella, also sometimes referred to as Lorenzo and Isabella or The Pot of Basil. Some of you may know the story and poem behind this early work of art by the Pre-Raphaelite painter but for those who do not, let me lead you through the background of this work and to the medieval allegorical tale, Decameron, written around 1352 by Giovanni Boccaccio. The word Decameron comes from the combination of two Greek words; déka meaning ‘ten’ and hēméra meaning ‘days’ and thus decameron means ‘ten day event’.
The Decameron is set in Italy around the 1350’s at the time of the Black Death. It tells of a group of ten people, seven young women and three young men who escape from the plague-ridden town of Florence and head into the hills of Fiesole and a deserted villa where they stay for a fortnight. In order to while away the evenings, each one of the group had to tell a story on each night for ten days. No story would be told on the one day set aside for the chores around the villa nor would a story be narrated on the holy days and thus in all ten stories would be told on the ten evenings making a total of 100 tales. The stories are sometimes of a bawdy nature and range from the erotic to the tragic. Each of the ten young people is made King or Queen of the company for one of the ten days in turn. This gives him or her, the right to choose a theme and a topic for the ten stories that day.
The painting I am featuring today is based on a story told by one of the young women, Filomena, on the fourth day and that days theme for all the stories was that they mus be tales of love that ends tragically. She tells the story of Lisabetta and her three brothers who live a very rich life togetherthanks to the wealth they have inherited after the death of their father. She has fallen in love with their manager Lorenzo and it was not long before they became lovers. Her affair with Lorenzo was kept a secret from her brothers but, unbeknown to her, her eldest brother saw his sister sneak into Lorenzo’s bedchamber. He was horrified as it was he and his brothers’ plan to marry her off to a wealthy nobleman and increase their own wealth. He informed his brothers as to what he had witnessed and they hatched a plot to kill Lorenzo. Days passed without incident until one day the brothers asked Lorenzo to accompany them on a trip, during which they murdered him and buried his body. On returning home they told their sister that Lorenzo had been sent away on business. A long time passes without any sign of Lorenzo and Lisabetta is heartbroken. One night Lorenzo appears to her in a dream and shows her where he is buried. She goes there and disinters the body and brings away his head. She takes the severed head wraps it in a fine napkin and buries it into a flower pot over which she plants basil, and other sweet herbs. Each day she sheds tears over the pot which nourish the herbs. Eventually the brothers get to hear about this pot of herbs, take it from her and discover the head of Lorenzo, which they re-bury. Isabella is once again heartbroken, grows weak from sorrow and eventually dies of grief.
A narrative poem by John Keats, entitled, Isabella or the Pot of Basil, written in 1818, is adapted from this story in which the girl is not now Lisabetta but Isabella. When the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1849 the following stanzas from Keats’ 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.
To read the poem in full go to: http://www.bartleby.com/126/38.html
I stood before this painting a week ago when I visited the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool and one could not help but be moved by this beautiful work of art. The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood members were fascinated by the poetry of Keats and Holman Hunt and Dante Rossetti intended to produce a series of etchings for book illustrations of Keats’s ‘Isabella’. John Millais worked up his drawings into this large painting which he completed in 1849. This was his first major painting and what is more remarkable is that he was only nineteen years of age.
The setting for the painting is a meal table around which sat a number of people including the three brothers, Isabella and Lorenzo. The brothers have just found out about their sister’s affair with Lorenzo but have said nothing to her although they are already formulating a plan in their minds as to how to kill Lorenzo. Isabella, wearing grey, sits at the right and is being handed a blood orange on a plate by her doomed lover, Lorenzo. A cut blood orange is symbolic of the neck of someone who has just been decapitated and this alludes to the time in the future when Isabella will cut off the dead Lorenzo’s head after finding him buried. The sedate portrayal of mealtime is broken as we see Isabella’s eldest brother, hunched over, rocking forward on his chair as he furiously kicks out at a frightened dog while cracking a nut. His face is contorted in anger as he lashes out at the helpless animal. Next to him sit his two brothers. Their demeanour is much calmer and there is certain smugness about their expressions for they are aware of their brother’s plan to kill Lorenzo. Observe the brother who holds up his glass of wine. Observe how he is slyly and surreptitiously glancing at Lorenzo and Isabella. He can see the look of desire in Lorenzo’s eyes as he studies his lover who has demurely avoided his penetrating gaze.
Millais has exaggerated the intensity of the painting by juxtaposing colours and tones. Look at how Millais has contrasted the white towel draped over the arm of the servant, standing on the far right of the picture, with his black tunic. The legs of this servant adorned in yellow stockings almost merges with the background colour of the floor and the marble base of the balustrade.
What I like about the work is how Millais has made each one of the diners different and each having very distinctive characteristics. Common among Pre-Raphaelite works is Millais attention to detail. Look at the plates on the table. Each has an exquisite pattern. Another distinctive Pre-Raphaelite feature is the inclusion of images and patterns within the image as a whole. Each of the majolica plates has a distorted picture glazed into its surface. Look too at the bench seat Isabella is sitting on. See how Millais has gone to pains to depict the seat. The base of the bench on which Isabella sits contains an intricate carving depicting a kneeling figure, below which we see the letters PRB, which stand for Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
The people sitting around the table were modelled by Millais’ friends. The wife of his half-brother was the model for Isabella. William Rossetti, Dante Rossetti’s brother, was Lorenzo, who sits next to Isabella; Dante Rossetti is the model for the man at the far end of the table on the right with a wine glass held to his mouth. The older man on the right-hand side of the table dabbing his mouth with a serviette is none other than John William Millais, the artist’s father. Walter Deverell, a fellow artist and student of Dante Rossetti and Frederic Stephens, an art critic, and one of the two ‘non-artistic’ members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood sat for the other two brothers who sit on the left hand side of the table. Amusingly, the brother who kicks out at the dog is painted from memory of a John Harris, a person who had bullied John Millais when they were together at the Royal Academy Schools.
Millais has symbolised Lorenzo and Isabella’s love for each other by including a depiction of the white rose and passion flower entwined in the arch above their heads, and also by them sharing a blood orange. We see the dog with its head on Isabella’s lap which is a sign of Lorenzo’s devotion for her and of course the fact that her brother aims a kick at the dog symbolises his feeling for Lorenzo. In this painting we have no doubt that death will soon follow and of course we know it will be the death of Lorenzo. Millais has included some symbols of death in the painting, for instance the brother holding up his glass of blood-red wine as he contemplates the end of Lorenzo. Other symbols of death are the hawk, which perches on the back of an empty chair, pecking at a white feather which is a symbol of peace. We see below the arm of the nearest brother a salt cellar lying on its side with the salt, which is considered a symbol of life, scattered on the tablecloth. This spilt salt symbolises the spilt blood which will soon occur when the brothers kill Lorenzo. Note how the salt is covered by the shadow of the brother’s forearm, thus implicating him in the heinous crime which is soon to happen. Look at the right background and on the top of the balustrade we see a large pot containing basil and this may be the one in which Isabella will place Lorenzo’s severed head. When you stand close up to the actual painting you can just make out designs on the majolica plates on the table. On one there is the scene of David beheading Goliath whilst another shows Prometheus having his entrails pecked out by an eagle. All of which is a reminder of the violence that is soon to follow.
The picture was sold to a tailor for £150 and a new suit.