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John Everett Millais’ Isabella

John Everett Millais, Self-Portrait [1]

John Everett Millais, Self-Portrait

3,789 words

If you think of the Pre-Raphaelites you will probably be put in mind of flame-haired women in medieval dress or perhaps the depiction of a scene from a biblical or mythological story. The aesthetic appeal of such paintings seems to derive from a pre-modernist craving for something formally beautiful in its own right, without any sense of remove or cynicism. And if you consider that the tail end of the Pre-Raphaelite movement preceded the emergence of Dada by only a few years then it really does seem as though the Brotherhood marked a final statement in the history of Western art. 

What was to follow with the fin de siècle art movements of Impressionism and Symbolism, and the twentieth-century schools of Abstract Expressionism and Surrealism, was a rapid breaking down of form and a thorough impeachment of Western cultural values. In fact, the Pre-Raphaelite paintings of the mid to late nineteenth century can seem so distant from the apparent trajectory of art history that they appear as anomalies, as a sort of kitsch re-enactment of a medieval past filtered through Victorian sentimentality.

But when the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed in 1848 it considered itself to be a revolutionary art movement. Looking back to Italian art of the fifteenth century, its founding members rejected the prevailing academic style of painting and instead preached fidelity to nature, a vivid colour palette and a strong compositional style. These were all ideas associated with the critic John Ruskin who became an influential champion of the Brotherhood.

One of the first Pre-Raphaelite paintings to be completed after the formation of the Brotherhood was John Everett Millais’ Isabella, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1849. This is a remarkable painting not least because it was painted when the artist was only 19 years old. The painting is based on Keats’ poem Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil which was itself based on a story from Boccaccio’s Decameron.

In Keats’ poem, Isabella is the sister of two Florentine brothers who have become wealthy and arrogant through a mercantile practice that is described in semi-demonic terms: “And for them many a weary hand did swelt / In torched mines and noisy factories. . . for them alone did seethe / A thousand men in troubles wide and dark.”

Isabella’s brothers are intending to arrange a marriage for her to some suitably wealthy merchant but unfortunately, if rather inevitably, Isabella has fallen in love with her brothers’ employee, Lorenzo. When the brothers find out, they summon Lorenzo on a spurious journey and, once they have found a secluded spot, they murder him and bury his body in a shallow grave.

Isabella becomes distraught when Lorenzo fails to return, but then, one night, his spectre appears to her in a dream. He tells her the truth of his murder and reveals the location of his corpse. He asks Isabella to, “Go, shed one tear upon my heather-bloom,    And it shall comfort me within the tomb.” Isabella goes with a maid to the location of Lorenzo’s burial and digs away the earth with her knife. She finds his buried corpse and cuts off the head. Taking it home she buries it in a pot and plants basil in the soil. Her tears water the herb until it grows profusely. Isabella succumbs to a morbid form of insanity, becoming obsessed with her pot of basil and the severed head within. Eventually, her brothers become curious about Isabella’s strange obsession with this pot and upon investigating they discover Lorenzo’s head. Filled with shame they flee Florence in self-exile. Isabella is left to pine and mourn unto death, an exemplary Pre-Raphaelite doomed heroine.

Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil belongs to the ballad school of poetry that was so popular through the eighteenth century. This type of poem was often associated with the gothic and melodramatic and for this reason was seen as a lower form of art that would appeal to females. “Real” poetry by contrast was concerned with the classical and lyrical.

When Wordsworth and Coleridge published the Lyrical Ballads in 1798 they reacted against this assumption and tried to establish a form of serious poetry that would use a more common vernacular, particularly that of rustic life:

Accordingly, such a language, arising out of repeated experience and regular feelings, is a more permanent, and a far more philosophical language, than that which is frequently substituted for it by the Poets, who think that they are conferring honour upon themselves and their art, in proportion as they separate themselves from the sympathies of men, and indulge in arbitrary and capricious habits of expression, in order to furnish food for fickle tastes, and fickle appetites, of their own creation.[1]

The intention of the poems in Lyrical Ballads was to rejuvenate the English language by the use of this less formal vocabulary, much as T. S. Eliot later attempted in the twentieth century. Wordsworth’s desire for a more grounded form of expression indicates that his use of the ballad form was an attempt at recovering a more perennial narrative style.

Keats, though, appears to have struggled with exactly where to pitch his poetic diction. He was outrageously, and famously, maligned by Blackwoods magazine in 1818 in a review of Endymion that relegated his work to the “cockney school of poetry.” The anonymous reviewer writes with insane hyperbole of Keats’ “imperturbable drivelling idiocy.”[2] It seems impossible now to imagine that the poet who wrote “a thing of beauty is a joy forever” was once received in this manner. But it does at least highlight the fact that the ballad form was seen as belonging to low cultural waters. Keats was reported to have said that “he does not want ladies to read his poetry: that he writes for men.”[3] But many of his poems, Isabella included, do betray his liking for the sort of romances that would have appealed to “ladies.”

And it was this aspect of his poetry that resonated with the Pre-Raphaelites. Perhaps inevitably, considering the ages of the founding members (Millais was 19, Rossetti 20, Holman Hunt 21), they had a liking for the extremities depicted in more melodramatic narratives, and many of their paintings reflect this in rather staged scenarios.

John Everett Millais: Isabella, 1848-49.. [2]

John Everett Millais, Isabella, 1848-49.

Returning to Millais’ painting of Isabella, on the left side of the table we see Isabella’s brothers, each of whom is unable to suppress a contemptuous sneer for Lorenzo who, seated opposite, solicitously proffers a sliced blood orange (symbol of decapitation) to Isabella. Isabella’s head is slightly downcast signifying her purity and modesty. Millais has somehow managed to capture in Lorenzo’s expression a suggestion of sensual, yet respectful longing. Isabella’s brother seated directly opposite her dominates the scene. His leg is extended horizontally, intimidating the hound into a submissive huddle in Isabella’s lap. The other figures in the painting are all very well realized (Rossetti was the model for the man seated at the back of the table drinking wine) but it is the malevolent stares of Isabella’s brothers which really animate the scene.

In a 2012 paper concerning sexual imagery in Millais’ paintings,[4] Carol Jacobi argues that the shadow cast by the arm of the brother in the foreground is meant to be seen as an erect penis. In support of this she points to the salt that spills onto the shadow and describes it as “an unambiguous equivalent for ejaculation.” Furthermore, the fact that he is cracking nuts is unarguably symbolic of his violent intentions towards Lorenzo. Jacobi claims that both of his hands are positioned to recall “the gesture of masturbation.” The paper continues in this fashion finding sexual intent behind most of the objects depicted in Millais’ oeuvre. Be this as it may, and Jacobi undoubtedly overstates her case, once you have seen the phallic shaped shadow emerging from the brother’s groin it is very difficult to unsee it.

Thinking about Millais’ painting in these terms puts me in mind of the TV programme Game of Thrones, particularly some of the scenes set in the southern parts of Westeros. These southern kingdoms have a sunny, fertile clime that matches perfectly the Florentine exoticism of Millais’ painting. More generally, in Game of Thrones there is a similar sense of Machiavellian intrigue, subtextual plotting, and sexual bargaining. I think it’s a useful comparison because it makes it easier to comprehend how vivacious some of the Pre-Raphaelite works would have been to their contemporary audiences.

John_Everett_Millais_-_Christ_in_the_House_of_His_Parents_(`The_Carpenter's_Shop')_-_Google_Art_Project (1) [3]

In any case, those viewers of Pre-Raphaelite paintings didn’t need to notice subliminal penises or anything half so shocking to become outraged by what they saw. Indeed, what is particularly intriguing to me about the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic is how truly alarming it could appear to their contemporaries. In 1850 Charles Dickens wrote an astonishingly vitriolic review of another of Millais’ paintings, Christ in the House of His Parents.

You behold the interior of a carpenter’s shop. In the foreground of that carpenter’s shop is a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed-gown, who appears to have received a poke in the hand, from the stick of another boy with whom he has been playing in an adjacent gutter, and to be holding it up for the contemplation of a kneeling woman, so horrible in her ugliness, that (supposing it were possible for any human creature to exist for a moment with that dislocated throat) she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest ginshop in England. Two almost naked carpenters, master and journeyman, worthy companions of this agreeable female, are working at their trade; a boy, with some small flavor of humanity in him, is entering with a vessel of water; and nobody is paying any attention to a snuffy old woman who seems to have mistaken that shop for the tobacconist’s next door, and to be hopelessly waiting at the counter to be served with half an ounce of her favourite mixture. Wherever it is possible to express ugliness of feature, limb, or attitude, you have it expressed. Such men as the carpenters might be undressed in any hospital where dirty drunkards, in a high state of varicose veins, are received. Their very toes have walked out of Saint Giles’s.[5]

Looking at the painting now it is impossible to imagine how it could have inspired such horror. Perhaps it is his perception of ugliness everywhere in the painting that seems so wrongheaded. But in any case Dickens’ ire is essentially twofold. He is appalled at the use of natural looking models because he assumes that art should be ennobling and moralistic (as his books were). But also, he is particularly scornful of the Pre-Raphaelites’ desire to make a movement back to an earlier aesthetic position. He labours the point by sarcastically cataloguing several spurious groups whom he suggests are following in the Pre-Raphaelites’ regressive steps. To take just one example:

A Society, to be called the Pre-Newtonian Brotherhood, was lately projected by a young gentleman, under articles to a Civil Engineer, who objected to being considered bound to conduct himself according to the laws of gravitation. But this young gentleman, being reproached by some aspiring companions with the timidity of his conception, has abrogated that idea in favour of a Pre-Galileo Brotherhood now flourishing, who distinctly refuse to perform any annual revolution round the Sun, and have arranged that the world shall not do so any more.[6]

It is worth noting that Dickens’ assumptions in this respect are entirely in keeping with those of the Victorians generally. Namely, that civilized society is moving forwards in a progressive fashion to greater advancement. Anyone who wishes to advocate for earlier modes of expression is seen as somehow outrageously retrograde. The notion of linear progression is absolute.

For anyone who is used to the culture of post modernity this sense of a singular historical narrative is very difficult to comprehend. For us, it has become axiomatic that we should make choices about which historical epochs we wish to emulate and, in some way, return to. By way of example, we will briefly consider two contemporary artists who make use of prior aesthetic styles in contrasting ways.

Ferri [4]

Roberto Ferri is an Italian painter whose work is clearly inspired by the baroque, and particularly by Caravaggio. He employs this particular visual style to depict isolated tableaux of bodily transformation and torture. His work is darkly symbolic and carries disturbing suggestions of human meat. His appropriation of this particular visual style is at once aesthetically beautiful and viscerally unsettling. He exploits his mastery of painterly technique to depict bodies floating in a strange limbo, poised between a flesh and blood realism and the enactment of a staged mythologization.

GPThe-Upper-Classes-at-Bay [5]

By contrast, Grayson Perry’s series of tapestries The Vanity of Small Differences utilizes a variety of old paintings as inspiration but in an altogether different way. To take one tapestry as an example, The Upper Class at Bay is based on Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews but is clearly aiming at social commentary and satire. Insofar as it mimics the Gainsborough, it does so sardonically and rather contemptuously. Using Gainsborough as a model for his composition, Perry is invoking the unseen class and economic contexts that lie behind a merely formal reading of that painting. Perry’s intentions are partly political and partly concerned with the semiotics of class difference.

mr-and-mrs-andrews-1749 [6]

The point is that the adoption of old forms is something that is now very much taken for granted and that can signify a range of different intentions. Two artists who both adopt the styles of old masters need share nothing in common regarding their philosophy of art, their technique, or their cultural values. Postmodernism allows for the total fluidity of visual styles and absolute historical anachronism.

When David Lynch shot Eraserhead in black and white, no one reacted with Dickens’ sense of horror, sarcastically assuming that he wanted to reject every single advance of the modern world. It was correctly seen as a stylistic choice, not an absolute statement about wanting to live in the past. And this is because there is no longer a contemporary style. The only thing that approaches a contemporary style is a tendency towards the ahistorical; a gesture of anachronistic appropriation. The material of cultural production has become determined more by the conscious choices of the artists who produce it than by the unconscious assumptions and background trends of the historical epoch in which it is wrought.

This notion of ahistorical, individual choice is not only the norm in artistic culture, it also determines our attitude towards religion. It was not so very long ago that Europeans and Americans would have been observant Christians without any sort of reflection at all. It was simply unthinkable to consider alternative religions or the possibility of God not existing. For most people there was barely any awareness that other religious views existed, or at least there was very little knowledge of them. Without a wider perspective the question of religion doesn’t seem to fall within the remit of personal choice. It is a matter of unconscious compulsion. Of course, for many parts of the world this is very much the case even today.

The present attitude to religion though, in the West at least, is decidedly postmodern. It has become pretty much settled that the question of religious belief is something that the individual has to decide for himself. It is seen as an accoutrement of the ego. An important social marker was set down in 1979 when John Cleese and Michael Palin appeared on a British TV show [7] to promote their new film Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Also appearing were Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark who were to argue vociferously against the film. Life of Brian had been banned by local councils in many parts of the UK as it was widely perceived to be a blasphemous film at a time when blasphemy was still an issue for Christians. In particular, many people thought that it was deliberately mocking the story of Jesus, so even in 1979 it was considered controversial.

The discussion can be found online and it is a fascinating historical artefact. Whilst it’s pretty clear that the Pythons win the debate, it’s the reasons for their winning that are interesting. In opposing the content of the film, Muggeridge and the Bishop are careless and complacent. They reel out pre-rehearsed arguments, employ irrelevant argumentum ad hominem, and generally behave in an arrogant and high-handed fashion. They seem to think that the self-evident truths of their position will be sufficient. The Pythons, on the other hand, are logical, nuanced and witty in their self-defence. In short, they persuade the audience to agree with their position by rational argument. It’s a debate that marks the point where accepted truths have not just been challenged, but have been seen to lose.

All of which might seem a long way from the story of Isabella and Lorenzo. In order to see the connection more clearly let us step backwards to the most important foundational text of English literature. The Old English epic poem Beowulf was written in Anglo Saxon England but it is set in an earlier time in the Continental homeland. In his masterful defence of Beowulf, Professor Tolkien refutes some of the more prevalent academic views of the poem and shows how the presence of dragons and monsters in the foreground of the story is not the semi-juvenile embarrassment it was thought to be. Tolkien perceptively argues that the northern gods are unlike their southern counterparts in that they fight the dragons and monsters alongside their human allies rather than appointing men to fight them as part of some indifferent scheme:

In Norse, at any rate, the gods are within Time, doomed with their allies to death. Their battle is with the monsters and the outer darkness. They gather heroes for the last defence. . . This may make the southern gods more godlike – more lofty, dread and inscrutable. They are timeless and do not fear death. . . For in a sense [southern mythology] had shirked the problem precisely by not having the monsters in the centre – as they are in Beowulf to the astonishment of the critics. But such horrors cannot be left permanently unexplained, lurking on the outer edges. . . It is the strength of the northern mythological imagination that it faced this problem, put the monsters in the centre, gave them victory but no honour, and found a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage.[7]

I think that this observation can be applied more widely so that it encompasses a current of Northern European imagination running from Beowulf through to Game of Thrones. This current, which includes the Pre-Raphaelites and The Lord of the Rings, is notable for its emphasis on the primacy of narrative, its acceptance of the supernatural, and its tendency to locate itself in a past time.

This latter tendency is noted by Tolkien regarding Beowulf: “When new Beowulf was already ancient.”[8] The earliest story in the English language was, at one level, a lament for a lost world, the world of the old land. There is a strain of English imagination that has continued to operate within this elegiac context, always looking back to a source of originary inspiration. But rather than representing a conservative, reactionary response that retreats to a falsely rendered historical period, this current of imagination actually faces the problem that Tolkien alludes to which, at bottom, is the problem of death. Rather than projecting a utopian, progressive future, these artists look back in time to the mythological underpinnings of imagination itself and they depict gods and monsters in the world alongside human beings. This is not escapism but a refusal to engage with a false historical progressivism, a progressivism which itself, in its utopian idealism, denies the reality of death. It is a radical gesture of refusal that is open to entirely different orders of being that go unrecognised in materialist philosophy. And if, in this acceptance of the supernatural, it becomes necessary to look back to an originary past this only serves to underscore the fact that the present is a foreign country. This all has less to do with the falsification of history than with the vindication of myth.

So, this particular artistic current is ahistorical in the sense that it rejects the inevitability of historical unfolding but it is completely distinct from the ahistorical sensibility of postmodern cultural production. A keynote of post modernism is the idea of pastiche. According to this notion, often discussed by Fredric Jameson, all artistic forms that adopt earlier (or simply other) modes are essentially copies, reproductions, and simulacra of past styles. The postmodern style, which includes the appropriation of any number of prior historical forms, is a sort of virtual culture that floats in digital time, rather than being rooted in seasonal time. The sort of artistic positions under discussion here, by contrast, are expressions of perennial lore that can only be accessed by a movement out of the un-numinous, materialist flow of history.

Returning to Isabella, there are a number of prefigurations of death in the painting: the slice of blood orange symbolizing decapitation; the pot of basil on the shelf in the background foretelling Lorenzo’s fate; the hawk on the left holding a white feather in its beak; the brother who gazes at the lovers through blood red wine. Isabella’s demure expression gives away nothing of the insanity that she will soon succumb to. Everything in the picture is tensely balanced, an uneasy containment of explosive forces. We are looking at a still vignette that is on the verge of murder and madness. This sense of balance, of poise, is achieved through the supremely gifted technical ability of Millais but it serves a purpose. That is, it seeks to contain and make meaningful the insanity that is to follow. As with the Beowulf poet, there is an acceptance of horror, of the inevitability of death, even as there is a compulsion to create art in the face of such meaninglessness. This will to exult in life without omitting the darker elements demonstrates Northern European spirituality in a nutshell.


1. William Wordsworth, The Oxford Authors: William Wordsworth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 597.

2. Z. (AKA John Gibson Lockhart), “Cockney School of Poetry,” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (August 1818), https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Blackwood’s_Magazine/On_the_Cockney_School_of_Poetry_IV [8].

3. Richard Woodhouse quoted in introduction, John Keats, Selected Poems (London: Penguin Books, 1988), xiii.

4. Carol Jacobi, “Sugar, Salt and Curdled Milk: Millais and the Synthetic Subject,” Tate Papers no.18, (Autumn 2012), http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/18/sugar-salt-and-curdled-milk-millais-and-the-synthetic-subject [9].

5. Charles Dickens, “Old Lamps for New Ones.” Household Words 12 (15 Jun. 1850), http://www.engl.duq.edu/servus/PR_Critic/HW15jun50.html [10].

6. Ibid.

7. J.R.R. Tolkien, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” in Beowulf: A Verse Translation, ed. Daniel Donoghue (W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 2002), 122.

10. Ibid., 129.