Monday, February 25, 2013

Painting of the Day: “Lorenzo and Isabella,” by John Everett Millais, 1848

Lorenzo and Isabella
John Everett Millais, 1848
The Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
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.
--“Isabella” or “Pot of Basil,” by Keats

This stunning painting was the first work of Pre-Raphaelite genius, John Everett Millais. Painted in 1848, it was based on a poem by Keats which was, in turn, based on a tale by Fourteenth Century Italian writer, Boccaccio. The story concerns a well-heeled young woman named Isabella who falls in love with one of her father’s apprentices, Lorenzo. Isabella’s brothers become nervous when they learn of their sister’s love. Fearing that should Lorenzo marry Isabella, their inheritance could be threatened, they lure Lorenzo into the woods and kill him, burying him in the forest. When Isabella learned of Lorenzo’s murder, she finds his body and disinters it, removing his head and hiding it in a flower pot in which she grows fragrant basil.

It’s just the sort of thing that would appeal to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood whose members rather enjoyed the combination of beauty and melancholy. Perhaps that’s why they were all so enamored of the lovely, but morose, poetry of Keats. Keats’ work inspired many a Pre-Raphaelite painting.

This work was displayed at the Royal Academy in 1849 to mixed reviews, but today it is considered one of the defining paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

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