Ysoude with the Love Philtre by Frederick Sandys

A Victorian painting reunited with its preliminary drawing

Ysoude with the Love Philtre (1870) by Frederick SandysMuseo de Arte de Ponce

At a time of financial difficulties, Frederick Sandys wrote to his agent, the art dealer Charles Augustus Howell: “I have been painting a very good head with hands, gold cup, blue dress, etc. It will be completed Monday or Tuesday next – I ought I think to have £200 for it – do you think you could sell it?”

In his letter, Sandys described Ysoude and the Love Philtre, the second half-length portrait he made on the subject of Tristram and Ysoude – the medieval romance included in Thomas Malory’s La morte d’Arthur (1485).

It has been part of the collection of the Museo de Arte de Ponce since 1960.

Ysoude (1870) by Frederick SandysMuseo de Arte de Ponce

Ysoude (1870)

In June of 2019, the Museum acquired the preparatory drawing for the painting, reuniting both artworks for the first time after almost 150 years.

Recognized among artists and collectors for his virtuosity as a draughtsman, Sandys uses the drawing medium as part of his creative process to create a full-scale preliminary drawing in preparation for the oil painting.

In this Arthurian tale, King Mark of Cornwall entrusts his nephew Tristram, one of King Arthur's knights, to travel to Ireland and win in his name the hand of the princess of unmatched beauty, Ysoude. On their journey back to England, Tristram and Ysoude mistakenly drink a love potion destined for the King and Ysoude, thus sealing their eternal yet forbidden love.

Made in black, red and white chalks, the drawing presents a mid-length portrait of the beautiful princess imagined by Sandys with long black hair, fair skin and soft features.

In the drawing, Ysoude is clothed in contemporary dress, wearing a loose silk garment with small white ruffs at the neck and cuffs, along with a double-stranded coral necklace.

Sandys depicts the princess holding a metal cup with hearts in repoussé, alluding to the love potion that sealed the lovers’ tragic fate.

Ysoude holds a rose in her left hand, a symbol of passion commonly associated to Venus, goddess of love.

The floral pattern on the tapestry behind Ysoude is fairly similar to the contemporary designs of Morris & Co., the design firm established in 1861 by William Morris with the artists Rossetti, Burne-Jones, and Phillip Webb, and the entrepreneurs Charles Faulkner and Peter Marshall.

Violet and Columbine Violet and Columbine (design registered 1883) by Morris & Company|William MorrisThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Shown here is an example of the type of floral textile pattern that Sandys could have seen and taken influence from to create the backdrop of his portraits. This particular tapestry was created by Morris & Company and registered in 1883.

Ysoude (1870) by Frederick SandysMuseo de Arte de Ponce

Albeit a preparatory work, the finished quality of the drawing makes it stand as an artwork in its own right.

Ysoude with the Love Philtre (1870) by Frederick SandysMuseo de Arte de Ponce

Ysoude with the Love Philtre (1870)

In the final painting, however, Sandys incorporates more symbolism and minute details that help tell the story of the beautiful black-haired princess.

The double-stranded coral necklace shown in the preliminary drawing now has silver charms intermingled with the red beads. These amulets include Thor’s hammer, a Christian cross, the Hebrew letter shin, and a rooster, among others.

These small charms are symbols of antiquity and divine protection, religious beliefs and pagan customs, carrying associations related to love and betrayal.

The foreground of the painting is covered with rich blue brocade upon which a small black box—possibly containing the ingredients for the love potion—rests next to various flowers, not pictured in the original sketch.

Violets can symbolize both love and death. Along with the geraniums, they are ruled by Venus, goddess of love and passion.

While roses are also associated to Venus, marigolds in turn are ruled by the sun. They are associated to love and creativity.

In the Victorian language of flowers, pink carnations symbolize a woman's love and the bonds of affection. Ysoude also wears a fillet of tawny marigolds in her dark hair.

Both the preparatory drawing and the finished oil painting stand testament to Sandys' capabilities as both a draughtsman and painter. His attention to detail and elaborate symbolism allow the artist to tell the story of Tristram and Ysoude, two lovers binded by a tragic fate.

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