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“Isabella” by John Everett Millais

"Isabella" by John Everett Millais

“Isabella” by John Everett Millais

“Isabella” by John Everett Millais depicts a scene in the relationship between Isabella, the sister of wealthy merchants, and their poor apprentice Lorenzo. It shows 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 a 1300s story which was 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.

This artwork 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 painting was the first to incorporate the Pre-Raphaelite initials.

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.

John Everett Millais

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.


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 colours and complex compositions of Pre-Raphaelite Italian art.

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. A later, medieval influence extended the movement’s power into the twentieth century with artists such as John William Waterhouse.


  • How much symbolism can you see in this painting?
  • A painting that tells a story in symbolism and detail.
  • Does the symbolism in this painting enhance the story?
  • Why is symbolism so effective?

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

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“Art is not a study of positive reality; it is the seeking for ideal truth.”
– John Ruskin


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