Sir John Everett Millais, Isabella

The first Pre-Raphaelite painting by Sir John Everett Millais

Sir John Everett Millais, Isabella, 1849, oil on canvas, 103 x 142.8 cm (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool). A conversation with Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris.


Additional resources

Video from Tate.

This painting at the Walker Art Gallery

T. J. Barringer, Jason Rosenfeld, Alison Smith, eds., Pre-Raphaelites, Victorian Avant Garde (Tate, 2012).

Elizabeth Prettejohn, The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites (Princeton University Press, 2000).

The Pre-Raphaelites (Tate, 1984).


Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”Millaiskeats,”]

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:11] We’re in the Walker Art Gallery, and we’re looking at a large canvas by John Everett Millais. This is called “Isabella,” and it tells a tragic love story.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:14] What we’re looking at is Millais’ first Pre-Raphaelite painting, which will have such an enormous impact on Victorian art, and European art broadly, in the later part of the 19th century. This is a significant statement about what he thinks art should be.

[0:34] He paints this at the end of 1848, the year that Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti and others form the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. What it means to be a Pre-Raphaelite was to look back to art before the time of Raphael, to what at that point was called the Italian Primitives.

Dr. Zucker: [0:55] What they saw in this early Italian art was a kind of simplicity, something that was more truthful and in opposition to the formulas that the academies had drawn from Renaissance and Baroque art. Formulas that, by the mid-19th century, felt very stale. Millais is drawing from a poem by John Keats called “Isabella.”

[1:17] She’s the sister to wealthy Florentine merchants, and she has fallen in love with one of her brothers’ employees, and he falls in love with her. Her brothers are planning to marry her off to a wealthy man to the benefit of the family. The brothers kill him and they bury his body.

Dr. Harris: [1:36] But Lorenzo’s corpse appears to her in a dream. She goes with her maid to the place where he’s been buried. They dig up the body. They cut off Lorenzo’s head and bring it back with them. Isabella, grief-stricken, buries his head in a pot of basil and waters it with her tears.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] What we’re seeing is a foretelling of that tragedy.

Dr. Harris: [1:58] His figures are eating and drinking off beautiful plates in front of brocaded wallpaper.

Dr. Zucker: [2:05] They are each quiet, one drinking, one wiping his mouth, one simply seeming to pause quietly.

Dr. Harris: [2:11] The lovers are framed by this view of the sky, of a garden, of nature, this idea of their love being something that is natural and contrasts with the evil perpetrated by the brothers, who are outlined against that expensive brocaded wallpaper.

[2:29] We, as the viewers, begin to read the story and know the tragedy that’s about to unfold. Millais shows us Lorenzo and Isabella in the very front of the painting. Lorenzo is offering a plate to Isabella, who’s affectionately stroking the head of her dog. We get a sense of foreboding when we look at the figure who reaches out his right leg to poke the innocent dog.

Dr. Zucker: [2:55] We can see that he’s got a nutcracker in his hand and he’s applying real force and gritting his teeth. There’s a sense of violence. If we’re especially attentive and we look at the painting of the majolica — that is, of the dishware — we can see some violent scenes, for example the beheading of Goliath.

[3:14] There’s another sign of the violence that’s about to unfold. We see a hawk that’s pulling at a white feather, a sign that it’s eating the last remnant of a dove. A sign of violence overcoming peace.

Dr. Harris: [3:32] And so we have these clues about violence and cruelty, but we also have signs of Lorenzo and Isabella’s love. The blood oranges symbolize their love for one another.

[3:41] We also see passionflowers and roses. Look at how beautifully the fruit is painted, the attention to that silver urn overflowing with grapes, the majolica on the table, the tablecloth. There’s all of these reminders of what money can buy. But of course, it’s money that destroys the love between Lorenzo and Isabella.

Dr. Zucker: [4:01] But this painting is not only about looking to the past.

Dr. Harris: [4:04] It’s important to remember the year. 1848. We’re at the end of a decade of strikes, of unemployment, of massive poverty, and issues around the social cost of rapid industrialization, of rapid urbanization, were on the top of everyone’s minds.

[4:34] Keats’ poem points to the problems, the cost of industrial capitalism that to many had run rampant. Keats writes, “With her two brothers, this fair lady dwelt. Enriched from ancestral merchandise and for them many a weary hand did swelt in torched mines…”

[4:48] This is less than 10 years after people have read in newspapers about children working in mines, about women working 18-hour days from unbridled capitalism. In a way, Millais, through Keats, is addressing these very important contemporary issues.

[5:14] Here we have Millais declaring himself as a Pre-Raphaelite artist. He’s put the initials “PRB” on this painting. He is telling his audience at the Royal Academy, where this was exhibited, “I am a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.”

Dr. Zucker: [5:26] It is so finely detailed. It has none of the fluidity that we associate with the Renaissance or the art of the Academy. None of the flourish or bravura brushwork. And then there’s this wonderful interaction of unusual tones and colors.

Dr. Harris: [5:42] Those pinks worn by Lorenzo, the orange jacket and the deep greens. These are colors that would have, to a 19th century viewer, looked especially vibrant. To understand this painting, we have to bring ourselves back to 1849 and where Victorian painting was at that moment.

[0:00] With this painting, we see the beginnings of a rebirth of Victorian painting.

[0:00] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Sir John Everett Millais, Isabella," in Smarthistory, January 18, 2023, accessed April 22, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/millais-isabella/.