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Isabella

John Everett Millais1848/1849

Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
Liverpool, United Kingdom

The wealthy Florentine merchant brothers opposed the love of their poor apprentice Lorenzo for their sister Isabella. The brothers later murdered Lorenzo but Isabella found his body, cut off the head and buried it in a pot of basil. The story is from a poem by John Keats, based on the 14th century Italian writer Boccaccio. Keats’s rich medieval imagery made him a favourite poet of the Pre-Raphaelites. This was Millais’ first painting in the new, sharply detailed Pre-Raphaelite style. The bright colour, the flattening of the picture space and the deliberate stiffness and angularity of the figures were all features taken from early Italian painting. The story is told through clear gestures and facial expressions, but Millais has also included symbolic details such as the hawk tearing at a feather, the blood orange given to Isabella and the passion flower above her head.

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  • Title: Isabella
  • Creator: John Everett Millais
  • Date Created: 1848/1849
  • tag / style: Pre-Raphaelite; John Everett Millais; Isabella; dog; kick; chair; meal; wine; table; plait; Florentine; brothers; sister; Lorenzo; Boccaccio; John Keats; medieval; symbols; gesture; hawk; feather; blood orange; passion flower; nuzzle; story; expressions; hound; intrigue; fist; nuts; shells; salt; maiolica; David beheading Goliath; Prometheus; lovers; roses; arch; doomed; fortell
  • Physical Dimensions: w1428 x h1030 mm (Without frame)
  • Artist biographical information: John Everett Millais was born in Southampton to a wealthy Jersey family. Millais’s talent for drawing led his family to move to London to further their son’s artistic career. After training in the Sass’s School in London he enrolled at the Royal Academy at the age of 11. At the Royal Academy he met the painters Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The three young students were disappointed with the teaching at the Royal Academy and the style of High Victorian art which prevailed at the Academy. They found that the greatly stylised and idealistic manner of painters such as Frederic Leighton had deprived art of a true spirit and its capacity to move spectators. In their efforts to promote a new type of art, less reliant on classicism and idealism, the three painters, together with others, founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. The name of the movement refers to their artistic influences coming from art made before the Renaissance artist Raphael (1483-1520), namely medieval art. Millais was elected a Royal Acedemician in 1863 and a President of the Royal Academy in 1896 when already ill with cancer. When he died he was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral next to Frederic Leighton.To find out more about John Everett Millais please follow the link to our online feature: http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/online/featuredartists/millais/
  • Additional artwork information: In the foreground of the picture, Isabella's brother sits hunched over the table with his foot extended to kick a hound that affectionately nuzzles at his mistress's knee. The sensitivity of this animal's face is in marked contrast to the bared teeth and grimace of his assailant, who, while brutally kicking, is at the same time engrossed cracking nuts. His clenched fists and the shattered shells scattered on the table before him betray the savagery with which he devotes himself to this labour. It is not difficult to see him as the leader of the group which will eventually kill Lorenzo. The expressions on the faces of the rest of the family are not brutal, but by their exaggeratedly erect postures, they suggest a certain smug satisfaction with their lot. The figure who is on the left hand side of the table and who holds a glass in front of him is not merely looking at his wine, but also peeping out of the corner of his eye at the lovers opposite. He has not missed the expression of burning passion in the eyes of Lorenzo, nor the demure self- restraining look on the face of Isabella. This tension between the lovers and the family is further elaborated by the use of more overt symbols. On the back of a chair to the left sits a hawk eating the white feather of a dove, a traditional symbol of peace. This indicates the impending violence. On the table there is spilled salt, symbolic of the blood which will later be spilled. The shadow of the arm of the foremost brother is cast across this salt, thus linking him directly with the future bloodshed. On the maiolica plates on the table it is possible to make out painted scenes of obvious violence. One plate shows David beheading Goliath, another possibly shows Prometheus having his entrails pecked out by an eagle. In contrast to these indicators of violence, Lorenzo offers a blood orange, a symbol of passion, to Isabella. Wreathed around the post behind Isabella's head are passion flowers, indicative of her love for Lorenzo, while above Lorenzo's head are roses, also symbolic of love. These are coloured white to indicate the purity of Lorenzo's affections. Millais has also used the archway behind the lovers to link their figures together. Just as Keats's poetry often relied upon a rich and detailed accumulation of images, so too is Millais's painting rich in detail, and he manages, in this one depicted incident from the poem, to contain a doom-laden foretaste of all the eventual horrors which are to come. To take a closer look at this painting and the story behind it please follow this link to our online feature: http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/online/pre-raphaelites/lorenzo/
  • Type: Oil on canvas
  • Rights: Purchased in 1884

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