A painting, oil on canvas, 1849, painted by the pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais, 1829 – 1896, British. Lorenzo and Isabella. Walker Gallery of Art, Liverpool, United Kingdom.
The artist had not turned 20 when he painted this scene from Boccaccio’s (1313-1375) Decameron about which John Keats (1795-1821) wrote a poem: Isabella, or the Pot of Basil.
I like it most for its play between a self-absorbed, self-satisfied pictorial calm and Lorenzo’s tension. And for the colours!
People in the sunshine of a yellow cocoon, sitting eating and drinking wine from china and fine glass.
All is quiet. Wine of so fine a vintage that one man is draining his glass to the last drop. Another is lost in admiration of the ruby red.
Very luxurious cloth: a voided velvet on the wall. The velvet on Isabella’s neighbor and paramour is so full of sheen that it can only be of silk. Isabella in silver-blue silk with a pattern of faint gold. She is totally absorbed with her neighbor and he with her.
A dazzling white damask on the table to hold the eye.
A greyhound tilted towards Isabella and very still. Another under the table near her brother.
There are two foils in the right quarter of the picture frame to highlight all this luxuriousness. A serving man in simple black, waiting. And a summer sky familiar to us all. Potted climbing white roses some of whose flowers have strayed horizontally across the back of the frame.
When you see the straying white roses, you see the right leg, outstretched, white on white, of Isabella’s brother. The one tentative and barely visible. The other tense, firm, pointed, strong.
His left leg is parallel with the tense, firm legs of the magnificent greyhound whose head Isabella is caressing into stillness…..
It is Isabella’s brother who provides the tension in this painting, concentrating as he is on the nutcracker.
His head is at the center of the three-quarters of the frame depicting the chief activity of this painting. His head is at the inverted apex of a V which rises to the two corners of the cocoon wallfabric.
His jacket of orange-red silk velvet, set off by the lit green, is the most dazzling of the colours in this painting. Lorenzo is interfering with our view of the whole table. But we won’t be complaining because he is a violent man.
His leg brings the tension out. It is like a warning. The warning is for his sister and her neighbor. Her brother(s) have decided to kill her neighbor, an employee of theirs. They have plans to marry her to a wealthy merchant. Isabella is being offered a cut blood orange by her would-be lover. Isabella is to find her paramour dead and buried. And she will cut off his head to take it with her. That is what the blood orange signifies.
Isabella’s brother is tense because he is on the verge of an act of great violence.
This was painted by a man not even 20!