William Holman Hunt, Claudio and Isabella

William Holman Hunt, Claudio and Isabella, 1850, oil on mahogany, 758 x 426 x 10 mm (Tate Britain)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] Here we are looking at William Holman Hunt’s “Claudio and Isabella” from 1850 in Tate Britain. This is 1850, so it’s two years after the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. We’ve got real, pure Pre-Raphaelite style here.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:18] Not just style, but in terms of subject matter also, right?

Dr. Harris: [0:21] How integrated text and image are here. That there’s text on the top of the frame that has Claudio’s line, “Death is a fearful thing,” and Isabella’s, “And a shamed life, a hateful.”

Dr. Zucker: [0:33] Then below, a beautiful kind of medieval script, “Measure for Measure.”

Dr. Harris: [0:37] The Shakespeare play that this is from. What’s happening is that Claudio has been arrested, a little bit under false charges, for impregnating his mistress.

Dr. Zucker: [0:49] Though they’re engaged.

Dr. Harris: [0:50] Right. Claudio’s sister Isabella is about to become a nun, and the man who’s arrested and imprisoned Claudio has said, “Well, maybe if your sister agrees to sleep with me, maybe I’ll release you from prison.”

Dr. Zucker: [1:06] She refuses to give away her virginity. Remember, she’s about to enter a nunnery.

Dr. Harris: [1:11] Right, she’s very chaste, she’s very devout. This has been interpreted as the moment when Claudio appeals to Isabella to…

Dr. Zucker: [1:19] Save his life.

Dr. Harris: [1:19] …to save his life and she refuses, although there are somewhat differing interpretations about exactly what moment this is.

Dr. Zucker: [1:25] I think there’s ambiguity even in his reaction, right? What’s interesting for me is that Hunt has chosen this really high-pitched moral moment where we don’t know which way it’s going to go. In a sense, we have to ask ourselves, how would we act in that moment?

Dr. Harris: [1:38] It’s that key moment, a thing that the Pre-Raphaelites love to do, that totally pregnant moment. When I’m looking at that backlight and I see that cherry tree behind them that’s in bloom.

Dr. Zucker: [4:38] Yeah, in full bloom.

Dr. Harris: [1:50] Then did you notice what’s between them?

Dr. Zucker: [1:52] There’s that little spire of a church, yes.

Dr. Harris: [1:54] Right, that grows between them. And so, you can’t really blame Claudio for asking his sister to betray her chastity and her vows, because he’s going to die and give his life up for nothing. You can’t blame her, either, for not wanting to do what she’s asked to do.

Dr. Zucker: [2:14] Look at the way that he’s portrayed her. The look of concern on her face is extraordinary. She’s got her hands over his heart.

Dr. Harris: [2:22] And sympathy. She’s comforting him.

Dr. Zucker: [2:23] Yeah, there’s this tremendous sense of responsibility that she feels.

Dr. Harris: [2:29] I’m noticing how close everything is to us, these two figures, that wall of the prison behind. Actually, I think Hunt visited a prison in order to paint it directly from life.

Dr. Zucker: [2:40] There’s an incredible amount of attention and detail in the rendering, even of the insignificant. That’s what’s so extraordinary. The focus is not simply on the hands, it’s not on the face. In fact, one can even argue that the face is somewhat de-emphasized. Claudio’s face is in shadow as it looks at us, which is a really interesting choice.

[2:58] He’s in front of a brighter window.

Dr. Harris: [3:00] Yes, they’re backlit, which is very strange.

Dr. Zucker: [3:02] It’s extremely unusual, but what that means is that there’s a very even light throughout the entire image, which allows our eye to meander down both of their bodies, beyond the hands. Down his legs, to the shackle. Then, as much attention is lavished on the chain, on the boards of the floor, on the brick that is exposed in the window frame…

Dr. Harris: [3:23] On the moss that seems to be growing on the stone.

Dr. Zucker: [3:26] Look at the vividness of that stone in back of the lyre. You can really see the age and the wear.

Dr. Harris: [3:32] All of this is this idea that the Pre-Raphaelites have of not using academic formulas and this return to nature, and a return to the Renaissance primitives that’s Pre-Raphaelite.

Dr. Zucker: [3:44] So before Raphael.

Dr. Harris: [3:45] Right. Looking at Northern Renaissance painting, looking at the history of art before things became so easy and formulaic and when artists were, in a way, discovering nature for the first time again after the Middle Ages.

[3:59] If we look at the color, it’s nothing like we would see in Royal Academy paintings before the Pre-Raphaelites.

Dr. Zucker: [4:05] The purple of his velvet leggings, the red of his velvet and fur-lined tunic. Then what I find most extraordinary is the color of her presumably white robes. There’s no white in any of that.

Dr. Harris: [4:17] No, there’s blues, and greens, and yellows, and golds. This is a kind of depth and intensity of color that would never have been possible before the Pre-Raphaelites.

Dr. Zucker: [4:28] What that does for me is it creates a visual parallel to the intensity of the emotion that’s being represented here and in the sense of the emotional dilemma that’s being presented here.

[4:38] [music]

ISABELLA What says my brother?
CLAUDIO Death is a fearful thing.
ISABELLA And shamed life a hateful.
CLAUDIO Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling: ’tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.
ISABELLA Alas, alas!—William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Act III, scene 1 (a room in a prison)

William Holman Hunt, Claudio and Isabella, oil on canvas, 1850, 30 x 16-3/4 inches (Tate Britain, London) Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1853.

William Holman Hunt, Claudio and Isabella, oil on canvas, 1850, 30 x 16-3/4 inches (Tate Britain, London). Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1853.

A moral dilemma

William Holman Hunt’s Claudio and Isabella illustrates not only the Pre-Raphaelite fascination with William Shakespeare, but also the artist’s particular attraction to subjects dealing with issues of morality. Taken from the play Measure for Measure, which tells the story of Claudio, who has been sentenced to death by Lord Angelo (the temporary ruler of Vienna) for impregnating his fiancée.

Claudio and Isabella (detail), William Holman Hunt, Claudio and Isabella, 1850, oil on mahogany, 75.8 x 42.6 cm (Tate Britain, London)

Claudio and Isabella (detail), William Holman Hunt, Claudio and Isabella, 1850, oil on mahogany, 75.8 x 42.6 cm (Tate Britain, London)

William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience, 1853, oil on canvas, 76 x 56 cm (Tate Britain, London)

William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience, 1853, oil on canvas, 76 x 56 cm (Tate Britain, London)

Claudio’s sister Isabella, a nun, goes to Angelo to plead for clemency for her brother and is shocked that he suggests that she trade sex for her brother’s life. Of course, she refuses, and Claudio initially agrees with her decision, but later changes his mind. Hunt depicts the moment when the imprisoned Claudio suggests that Isabella sacrifice her virginity to gain his freedom.

It was the type of subject that appealed to Hunt, who liked themes to do with questions of guilt and sinful behavior, such as his well known painting The Awakening Conscience (1853).

Claudio and Isabella

Claudio’s face, which is partly in shadow, looks down and away from his sister. His slouching posture, the rich texture of his dark, yet colorful clothes and pointed medieval-looking shoes are a sharp contrast to the stark white of the nun’s habit, her upright posture and unwavering gaze. Sunlight from the prison window lights Isabella’s face and permits a glimpse of apple blossoms and a church in the distance.

The interior of the scene was painted at Lollard Prison at Lambeth Palace, and the crumbling masonry around the windows and the rusty metal of the shackle that bind Claudio’s leg detail the less than desirable conditions.

Shackle (detail), William Holman Hunt, Claudio and Isabella, 1850, oil on mahogany, 75.8 x 42.6 cm (Tate Britain, London)

Shackle (detail), William Holman Hunt, Claudio and Isabella, 1850, oil on mahogany, 75.8 x 42.6 cm (Tate Britain, London)

Hunt also painted the lute hanging in the window while at the prison. The lute with its red string is symbolic of lust, but the fact that it is placed in the sunshine rather than the gloom of the cell lessens the negative impact. The petals of apple blossom scattered on Claudio’s cloak on the floor, although not added until 1879, are intended to show that Claudio is willing to compromise his sister to save himself.

Financial difficulties

Claudio and Isabella was begun in 1850 after Hunt received a small advance from the painter Augustus Egg. Poor reviews of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings at the Royal Academy of 1850 had created financial difficulties for Hunt. He continued to work on the painting for the next several years, finally exhibiting the picture at the Royal Academy of 1853.

“Death is a fearful thing”

The painting appeared with a quotation from the play carved into the frame, a devise Hunt was to explore in many of his paintings, as a way of reinforcing his message. The short notation “Claudio: Death is a fearful thing. Isabella: And shamed life a hateful,” serves not only to point to the exact moment in the play, but also as a reminder of the underlying moral dilemma of the subject. The ability to bring to life these moments of ambiguity was one of Hunt’s greatest achievements.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Rebecca Jeffrey Easby, "William Holman Hunt, Claudio and Isabella," in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, accessed July 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/hunt-claudio-and-isabella/.