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“Isabella” by John Everett Millais

John Everett Millais - Isabella

“Isabella” by John Everett Millais

“Isabella” by John Everett Millais was Millais’s first work in the Pre-Raphaelite style, created shortly after the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. The base of the bench on which Isabella sits has a carving depicting a kneeling figure under which appear the letters PRB which stand for Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. This was the first painting to incorporate the Pre-Raphaelite initials.

The painting depicts a scene in the relationship between Isabella, the sister of wealthy merchants, and their poor apprentice Lorenzo. It represents the moment at which Isabella’s jealous brothers realise that there is a romance between the two young people. The brothers later plot to murder Lorenzo so they can marry Isabella to a wealthy nobleman. The painting illustrates an episode from Giovanni Boccaccio’s (c.1313 – 1375) writings, which were reprised by John Keats in poem form.

In the painting, Isabella is being handed a blood orange on a plate by the doomed Lorenzo, signifying the later spilling of Lorenzo’s blood. One of her brothers kicks a frightened dog while cracking a nut and leaning forward in an upturned chair. The painting is structured with a deliberately distorted perspective, elongating the right-hand side of the table.

A distinctive Pre-Raphaelite feature is the hidden symbolism in their paintings. Experts claim several hidden phallic symbols in this picture, mainly surrounding the frustrated brother on the front left. Critics argue that the critical symbol is the shadow on the table near his crotch area, below his elbow and the related body language.

The artist, Sir John Everett Millais, was a Victorian-era English painter who was one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded at his home in London. Millais became a famous exponent of the style with this painting.  By the mid-1850s Millais was moving away from the Pre-Raphaelite style and developing a new and powerful form of realism in his art.

Reflections

  • How much symbolism can you see in this painting?

Lorenzo and Isabella

  • Title:                      Isabella (also known as Lorenzo and Isabella)
  • Artist:                    John Everett Millais
  • Date:                      1849
  • Medium:               Oil on Canvas
  • Style:                      Pre-Raphaelite
  • Dimensions:        103 cm x 142.8 cm; frame: 136.5 cm x 177.5 cm
  • Museum:              Walker Art Gallery

John Everett Millais

    • Name:                    Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Baronet
    • Born:                      1829 – Southampton, England
    • Died:                       1896 (aged 67) – Kensington, London
    • Nationality            English
    • Notable works:

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“Great events make me quiet and calm; it is only trifles that irritate my nerves.” Queen Victoria

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Photo Credit: John Everett Millais [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons