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“Isabella and the Pot of Basil” by William Holman Hunt

Isabella and the Pot of Basil by William Holman Hunt

“Isabella and the Pot of Basil” by William Holman Hunt

“Isabella and the Pot of Basil” by William Holman Hunt depicts a scene from John Keats’s poem “Isabella.”

The poem tells the tale of a young woman whose family intends to marry her to “some high noble and his olive trees.”

However, Isabella falls for Lorenzo, one of her brothers’ employees. When the brothers learn of this, they murder Lorenzo and bury his body.

Lorenzo’s ghost then informs Isabella in a dream. Isabella exhumes the body and buries the head in a pot of basil, which she then tends to obsessively while pining away in her room. 

This painting shows the heroine Isabella caressing the basil pot in which she had buried the severed head of her murdered lover Lorenzo.

"Isabella and the Pot of Basil" by William Holman Hunt

This painting portrays Isabella, unable to sleep, dressed in a nightgown. Her bed is visible with the cover turned over in the background through the doorway.

Isabella drapes herself over the altar she has created to Lorenzo on an elaborately inlaid prayer desk over which a richly embroidered cloth has been placed.

The grotesque styled majolica pot, decorated with skulls, holds Lorenzo’s head, which has been interred in the pot.

Her long hair flows over the pot and around the plant, as she:

“hung over her sweet Basil evermore,
And moistened it with tears unto the core.”

William Holman Hunt’s emphasis on sensuality, rich colors, and elaborate decorative objects reflects the growing Aesthetic movement of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement. This artwork influenced several later artists who adopted the same subject. 

Hunt first drew an illustration to the poem in 1848, shortly after the foundation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Hunt returned to the poem in 1866, shortly after his marriage, when he began to paint several erotically charged subjects.

Having traveled with his pregnant wife Fanny to Italy, Hunt began work on the painting in Florence. However, after giving birth, Fanny died from fever in late 1866.

Hunt turned this painting into a memorial to his wife, using her features for Isabella. He worked on it steadily in the months after her death, returning to England and finally completing it in 1868. 

“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;
They could not, sure, beneath the same roof sleep.
But to each other dream, and nightly weep.”

-Isabella by John Keats

Isabella by John Keats

Isabella or the Pot of Basil (1818) is a narrative poem by John Keats adapted from a story in Boccaccio’s Decameron.

The poem is set in the Middle Ages and was published in 1820. The poem was popular with Pre-Raphaelite painters, who illustrated several episodes from it, including:

William Holman Hunt

William Holman Hunt (1827 – 1910) was an English painter and one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. His paintings were notable for their incredible attention to detail, vivid color, and symbolism.

These features were influenced by the writings of John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle, according to whom the world itself should be read as a system of visual signs.

Of all the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Hunt remained most loyal to their ideals throughout his career. He was always keen to maximize the popular appeal and public visibility of his works.

Pre-Raphaelites

The Pre-Raphaelites focused on painting subjects from modern life, and literature often used historical costumes for accuracy. They painted directly from nature itself, as accurately as possible, and with intense attention to detail.

The Pre-Raphaelites defined themselves as a reform movement, created a distinct name for their art, and published a periodical to promote their ideas.

The Pre-Raphaelites was a group of English painters, poets, and art critics, founded in 1848.

The group intended to reform art by rejecting what it considered the mechanistic approach first adopted by the artists who succeeded Raphael and Michelangelo, hence the name “Pre-Raphaelite.”

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood sought a return to the abundant detail, intense colors, and complex compositions of Pre-Raphaelite Italian art.

Isabella and the Pot of Basil

William Holman Hunt

Isabella and The Pot of Basil

A Virtual Tour of Pre-Raphaelite Artists

John Everett Millais

William Holman Hunt

Isabella: or, The Pot Of Basil

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

John William Waterhouse

Marie Spartali Stillman

Ford Madox Brown

Henry Holiday

Edward Burne-Jones

Isabella: Or the Pot of Basil – Audio

Isabella Or The Pot of Basil – Film

“Isabella and the Pot of Basil” by William Holman Hunt

~~~

“With every morn, their love grew tenderer,
With every eve deeper and tenderer still.”

– Isabella by John Keats

~~~


Photo Credit: William Holman Hunt [Public domain]; https://www.christies.com/ / CC BY-SA (creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

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