Friday, May 21, 2010

Isabella; or the Pot of Basil

This was always among my husband’s favorite paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, and one that I’d always found terribly ghoulish. While he told me the story behind the painting, it did little to change my feelings about it until I recently stumbled upon the artistic inspiration for the piece, Keats poem, “Isabella; or the Pot of Basil.” Now that painting is my favorite among the many that illustrate the dramatic sorrow of Isabella.

 John White Alexander, 1897

The poem tells the story of a young woman who falls in love with a young man who works for her two brothers.  Since her brothers are determined to marry her off in order to increase the family fortune, they kill her unsuitable suitor. She discovers their treachery, exhumes her lover’s head, and plants it in a pot of basil which she waters with her tears.  You can read the entire 63 stanza poem, published in 1820, here and below, see some of the many paintings the tragic story inspired, particularly among the Pre-Raphaelite painters.

Sir John Everett Millais, 1849

These brethren having found by many signs
What love Lorenzo for their sister had,
And how she lov’d him too, each unconfines
His bitter thoughts to other, well nigh mad
That he, the servant of their trade designs,
Should in their sister’s love be blithe and glad,
When ’twas their plan to coax her by degrees
To some high noble and his olive-trees.

William Holman Hunt, 1867
Then in a silken scarf, - sweet with the dews
Of precious flowers pluck’d in Araby,
And divine liquids come with odorous ooze
Through the cold serpent pipe refreshfully, -
She wrapp’d it up; and for its tomb did choose
A garden-pot, wherein she laid it by,
And cover’d it with mould, and o’er it set
Sweet Basil, which her tears kept ever wet.

 John William Waterhouse, 1907
And she forgot the stars, the moon, and sun,
And she forgot the blue above the trees,
And she forgot the dells where waters run,
And she forgot the chilly autumn breeze;
She had no knowledge when the day was done,
And the new morn she saw not: but in peace
Hung over her sweet Basil evermore,
And moisten’d it with tears unto the core.

John Melhuish Strudwick, 1879

Yet they contriv’d to steal the Basil-pot,
And to examine it in secret place:
The thing was vile with green and livid spot,
And yet they knew it was Lorenzo’s face:
The guerdon of their murder they had got,
And so left Florence in a moment’s space,
Never to turn again. - Away they went,
With blood upon their heads, to banishment.

And so she pined, and so she died forlorn,
Imploring for her Basil to the last.
No heart was there in Florence but did mourn
In pity of her love, so overcast.
And a sad ditty of this story born
From mouth to mouth through all the country pass’d:
Still is the burthen sung - «O cruelty,
«To steal my Basil-pot away from me!»


Doug Reich said...

Wonderful post. Despite the story, I think White's painting is technically brilliant. Keats is one of my favorites too. Thanks for sharing this.

Lynne said...

Thanks for the comment, Doug.

Just a note, if you go looking for the painting, the artist's name is John White Alexander. I scrambled it up (it's fixed now).

Fiddler said...

I was hoping Hunt's Isabella was at the MFA, too, but it appears I'll have to travel to Newcastle-upon-Tyne to the Laing Art Gallery to visit that one in real life.

Thanks for sharing both the Keats and the art.

Lynne said...

Road-sea-road trip!

While we're across the pond, let's partake of a Jane Austen tour.

Sigh. Maybe in a few years.

Fiddler said...

I'd never want to come back. Let's do it!

Lynne said...

Good day, huh?

Well, they didn't even play Pomp and Circumstance so how ripped off do I feel?

Fiddler said...

Was P & C replaced with something else? Trying to remember what was played at mine.

Lynne said...

They played this - four separate times! And while I appreciate a kilt-wearing man as much as the next woman, I was sorely disappointed by their lack of variety, let alone Elgar.

Errant Aesthete said...

I adore Alexander's painting and the story behind it is inspired. Lovely!

Lynne said...

I'm glad you liked it, EA, as I'm quite certain this inspired my stumbling upon it in the first place.

I intend to read that book someday, too. Thanks.