William Holman Hunt called John Everett Millais’ Isabella the most wonderful picture any youth under the age of 20 ever painted and, I think, that still rings true. Millais painted this at age 19. It was his coming out work at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. It’s the first picture that bears BRB, the initials of the brotherhood, as well as his signature, and it was the work that established a kind of manifesto for what the artists were trying to achieve in painting.
Millais’ work is inherently modern but accesses the past in its evolution. It was inspired by the San Benedetto Altarpiece by Lorenzo Monaco, and he took the figures of two saints for this composition of Isabella on the right, and Lorenzo on the left.
It’s a wonderful story, Isabella, is the sister of two brothers who run a mercantile business in Florence in the early renaissance, she has fallen in love with Lorenzo who is a clerk in their office so there’s a class issue, and she is playing it very cool, and Lorenzo can’t help but stare directly into her face. He is obsessed by her. He is not playing it cool enough, and things go horribly wrong from here. They take him and they murder him, and they bury him in the forest, and then Isabella is pursued by, in her brain, a spectre, who takes her to this site in the forest, she digs up the body, she realises that it’s too big for her to lug home so she chops off the head, and just carries the head home with her, and puts it in her rooms in a pot of basil.
It’s a wonderful story, a fantastic story, so uplifting, but it comes from John Keats, Keats got the subject from Boccaccio, the early Italian writer so it has an authentic medieval route, and this is a key facet of pre-Raphaelite art, they wanted to go back to art from before the time of the Raphaelites, or the followers of Raphael the high renaissance artist, they wanted to invigorate art of the moment by accessing the past in order to make works which are inherently of the present.
So what Millais does, and what’s really radical about pictures in this period, is he takes narrative and he treats it almost cinematically, instead of giving you an absolute moment in a very long poem by Keats, he gives you an encapsulation of the entirety of the narrative in a single picture so really it is the key work that you see when you walk in, and it establishes all the aims of this radical brotherhood.