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Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Alas, So long!

12 May

Half-Italian and half-mad, the Pre-Rapahelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti was born on this day in 1828 in London, and here is one of his poems called “Alas, So Long!”. I felt the mood of John William Waterhouse’s painting “Miranda” carries the same melancholy mood of longing and hope.

John William Waterhouse, Miranda, 1875

Alas, So Long!

AH! dear one, we were young so long,
It seemed that youth would never go,
For skies and trees were ever in song
And water in singing flow
In the days we never again shall know.
Alas, so long!
Ah! then was it all Spring weather?
Nay, but we were young and together.
Ah! dear one, I’ve been old so long,
It seems that age is loth to part,
Though days and years have never a song,
And oh! have they still the art
That warmed the pulses of heart to heart?
Alas, so long!
Ah! then was it all Spring weather?
Nay, but we were young and together.
Ah! dear one, you’ve been dead so long,—
How long until we meet again,
Where hours may never lose their song
Nor flowers forget the rain
In glad noonlight that never shall wane?
Alas, so long!
Ah! shall it be then Spring weather,
And ah! shall we be young together?

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John Roddam Spencer Stanhope: Thoughts of the Past

24 Apr

“Roxanne, you don’t have to wear that dress tonight, walk the streets for money, you don’t care if it’s wrong or if it’s right…” (The Police)

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Thoughts of the Past, 1859

A sad-eyed red haired young woman is standing by the window in her shabby room overlooking the harbour and the grey waters of the Thames. Space around her is dark and cluttered, and it’s hard to distinguish all the details. The window to her right is overlooking the dark murky waters of the Thames, but the colours and style of the painting might lead us to assume the window is overlooking the gloomy canals of Bruges; it has a touch of Northern Renaissance and especially Van Eyck’s tall lean figures in strange cluttered spaces. Stanhope actually painted this in the studio at Chatham Place by the Thames just bellow the studio where Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal spent many happy hours in love. The woman’s face with those large very sad eyes and ruby red lips pressed together reveals her inner drama and tells us into her story. She is holding her long hair with her right hand, and she’s holding the brush in the left, but it’s looks more like she is clutching them both. There’s uneasiness about her gestures and face expression; one can sense something isn’t quite right. A cloud of heavy silence and the anticipation of the inevitable downfall hangs above the room.

This is Stanhope’s first exhibited painting and he is considered the second generation Pre-Raphaelite. The style, the theme and the mood of the painting are indeed very Pre-Raphaelite. Also, a typical Pre-Rapahelite painting with all its details and layers of symbolism allows us to read it almost like we would a book; gazing, investigating, and interpreting. A motif of a sad woman deep in her thoughts reminds of Millais’ Mariana although in that painting the inspiration was taken from Shakespeare’s work and in this painting by Stanhope the motif is taken directly from their day to day Victorian reality. This red-haired woman in the painting is a prostitute contemplating her life so far; reeking of sin and immorality, and feeling turmoil that seemingly has no answer. She is dressed in an informal clothes, there’s money and jewellery on her dressing table and in the lower left corner we see a man’s glove and a stick, part of it. The curtains are torn in one place, and the plant under the window looks sickly, striving for light and fresh air but never reaching it. The view from her window, looking on the dirty waters of the Thames indicate the only destiny suitable for a fallen woman such as herself: suicide by drowning. Living is no option because in the eyes of the respectable Victorian society, she is already tainted, and suicide would be the only path to redemption.

As you can see in the study bellow, Stanhope originally intended to paint the woman with eyes looking upwards, just like in Baroque painting of female saints. The model was Fanny Corthforth who was also Rossetti’s lover and, in 1858, also posed for his painting “Found”, another fallen-woman theme painting. As effective as that face expression is in some paintings, I am glad Stanhope discarded the idea because it can seem overly sentimental, even pathetic. Instead, he portrayed her gazing straight at us and by doing that he involved us, the viewer, and drew us into her world of indecision, moral quandary and despair. I think it also brought the fallen woman and her problem down to an earthly realm; her gaze condemns society she lives in here on earth, instead of seeking help from the heavens above. It isn’t God who judges her, it’s society. Her struggles are much more than sugary sentimentalism that Victorians loved.

A study for the painting

Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal – Love Kept My Heart In a Song of Joy

3 Feb

In this post we’ll take a look at some drawings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti of himself posing for his lover and muse Elizabeth Siddal.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, D. G. Rossetti Sitting to Elizabeth Siddal, September 1853, pen and ink shaded with the finger on writing paper

It’s a well-known fact that Elizabeth Siddal posed for the famous Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but it might surprise you that Rossetti was a model himself, not professionally though, but in this instance to his lover Elizabeth. Seems that the artist-muse relationship was a dynamic one with these two. In late 1852 Rossetti found himself a flat at 14 Chatham Place in Blackfriars in London, a place which no longer exists today. It was near the river Thames and near Southwark where Elizabeth lived. It was around the same time that Rossetti decided to become Lizzie’s art teacher. Despite coming from lower social class, Lizzie had a keen interest in the art; she read poetry that she could get her hands on and she dabbled in drawing too. From that time on, Rossetti even refers to Lizzie as his ‘pupil’ in the letters he wrote to acquaintances, making their relationship seem far more formal in nature than it was in reality as Lizzie was by that time a regular visitor at Chatham Place, even when Rossetti was away.

Still, Rossetti’s offer to tutor her in drawing killed two birds with one stone: “The offer to teach her was intended kindly and genuinely – Rossetti always believed Lizzie had a prodigious  undiscovered talent – but it had also the extra attraction for him of providing an ideal excuse for not needing to place their relationship on a more permanent, or official, footing.” (Lucinda Hawksley; Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel) Rossetti’s simple pen and ink drawing “D. G. Rossetti Sitting to Elizabeth Siddal” dates back to this early, still happy, phase of their relationship and shows a intimate moment of two artists at home at Chatham Place; Rossetti is posing and Lizzie is drawing him. it seems to have been sketched quickly, is intimate and sincere. I find it hard to imagine someone as arrogant and big-headed as Rossetti in an obedient role of an artist’s model, sitting quietly and not doing anything. And yet in the drawing he seems quite relaxed, gazing at Lizzie while she is gazing at him.

Lizzie Siddal’s love poetry is mostly sad, but some verses reveal the joy of love that she had experienced in her relationship with Rossetti, such as these verses from the poem “The Passing of Love” which might be about similar moments of quiet joy that Rossetti had captured in his drawings, just two of them alone at home, enjoying the love they have; love which keeps one warm even in the coldest winds of winter, love that makes one blind to everything else:

“Love kept my heart in a song of joy,
My pulses quivered to the tune;
The coldest blasts of winter blew
Upon me like sweet airs in June.

Love held me joyful through the day
And dreaming ever through the night;
No evil thing could come to me,
My spirit was so light.”

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal Seated at an Easel, 1852

La Belle Dame Sans Merci – Pre-Raphaelites and John Keats

11 Oct

In this post we’ll take a look at a very popular topic for the Pre-Raphaelite painters: the heroine of John Keats’s poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”. At once beautiful and cruel, this damsel enchants the poor naive knight and brings him to his doom.

John William Waterhouse, La Belle Dame sans Merci, 1893

The most beautiful, the most captivating portrayal of the beautiful and cold-hearted lady from John Keats’s poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci” is, for me, the one painted by John William Waterhouse in 1893. The warm rich colours, her languid pose and the way she gazes at the poor knight linger in the memory. Winterhouse wasn’t particularly faithful to Keats’s vision of the setting; Keats described the scene of their doomed encounter as taking place in a desolate wintry landscape where no birds are singing. Waterhouse and other artists before and after him had envisaged the scene differently, which shows that sometimes motifs from poetry don’t translate well into visual arts. Still, the warm colours and details such as red leaves in the foreground suggesting that it’s late summer or early autumn, add to the sensuality of the theme. The autumn is not much different to the merciless lady; nature in autumn charms us with her richness, giving promises it won’t fulfill; the crimson leaves speak of luxury, yet they shall wither and fall in decay.

This is how the knight in the Keats’ poem describes the lady:

“I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful, a fairy’s child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.”

Most unusually, but very fitting for the rest of the painting’s colour palette, Waterhouse painted the lady’s dress in a beautiful warm shade of purple, in a seductive and illusive colour of wine. And look at the heart on her sleeve. Her long auburn hair is falling down her back as she gazes transfixed at the knight, in the same way that the nymphs in Waterhouse’s other painting “Hylas and the nymhps” are gazing at the poor Hylas. Her ruby red lips, her long hair and sweet-scented air all lie; for it is not love that lies on her heart but deceit! And it is only the poor naive knight who is blind to it. And the nature is lying with her; white briar-roses bloom and the trees in the background, reminiscent of the early Renaissance painters, are silent and many dark things they wickedly withhold. The dense row of tall trees reminds me of the trees in Botticelli’s paintings from series “The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti”, part one and two.

Frank Dicksee, La Belle Dame sans Merci, 1902

Frank Dicksee was another painter who painted in the Pre-Raphaelite style, but just like Waterhouse he wasn’t the member of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. There is something sentimental about his version which I don’t like, but I do love the lady’s long flowing red hair with a crown of white flowers on it. Here is John Keats’s poem, it is too beautiful not to be included:

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful, a fairy’s child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.

Arthur Hughes, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1863

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.

She took me to her Elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild, wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Frank Cadogan Cowper, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1926

At last, the knight is defeated and the lady arises like a phoenix from the ashes with a victorious glow on her cheeks, hair even shinier and more beautiful – she is ready to strike again. Wild red poppies are swaying in the wind, dancing and whispering passionately of the poor knight’s death. Her dress is intricate and ornate, and, similar to Klimt’s designs, almost has a life of its own. Her hands are seductively placed above her head, while the knight is lying dead in the grass, poppies and a few dandelions around him make for a very striking and powerful scene. Whereas Waterhouse opted for a dreamy idyllic version of the theme, focusing on the lady’s intense seductive gaze, Cowper here isn’t shy at portraying her as a merciless vixen.

Henry Wallis – The Death of Chatterton

23 Sep

Today we’ll take a look at a painting which I loved recently; “The Death of Chatterton” painted in 1856 by a Pre-Raphaelite painter Henry Wallis. The painting’s romantic, melancholy mood and vibrant colours are perfect to celebrate the first day of autumn; the most romantical of all the seasons.

Henry Wallis, The Death of Chatterton, 1856, Tate Britain version

Pale rays of the morning sun are coming in through the window of this shabby little garret. A young man is lying on the bed, but he isn’t in the world of dreams, in the usual slumber we mortals are well acquainted with. His pale grayish skin and hand hanging limply and touching the floor tell us that his soul is now wandering the dark avenues of the world of the death; no bird song, no caress or soft whisper of a loved one’s voice shall ever awaken those eyes to see and mouth to speak again. Through the window stretches a view of London; a city of possibilities, a city of despair, a city which brought nothing but disappointment and misery to this poor red-haired sleeping angel. Not many possessions he had in his poorly furnished attic room; a box lies next to his bed full of papers, some torn to pieces and some survived with words full of secrets. A chair with a red coat on it. Dark dirty wall full of cracks and a round little table. One can imagine the eerie silence hanging in that room like a cloud.

The dead young man here is the eighteenth century poet Thomas Chatterton who died in London in 1770 at the age of seventeen by poisoning himself with arsenic in the fit of despair. Although poor, he was very clever and not only ambitious, but, unfortunately for him, quite romantic too; when his idealism was shattered, the pink clouds of his dreams tainted by reality’s grey long-fingered nails, he saw death as the only escape. He is now considered an early romantic, and with his interest in Medieval literature and his short life laced with mysteries, Chatterton was admired by Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats. And yet, no one glamourised his life with such intensity as Wallis here in this painting. Victorian group of painters, the Pre-Raphaelites were visual continuators of the idealism and dreaminess of the Romantic poetry; not in the form of beautiful and sensuous language but in vibrant colours and intricate detailing. Not only the subject alone, that of a Romantic martyr for art, but the method and style of the painting with its emphasis on details and usage of vibrant colours connect Wallis to the Pre-Raphaelites.

Can we take a moment to appreciate just how gorgeous and vivid these colours are, and how beautiful his corpse looks dressed in those lapis lazuli coloured trousers and masses of auburn hair. How serene he looks after a life of suffering in this cruel world. His shirt is unbuttoned, one shoe fell on the floor, and there is a bottle, presumably of arsenic that rolled out of his hand. In the Birmingham version of the painting, his trousers appear more violet in colour, which makes a tremendous difference 😉 .

Henry Wallis, The Death of Chatterton, 1856, Birmingham version

The dazzling chiaroscuro, a method which Wallis loved, with the lightness falling on the body while the rest of the garret is in half-darkness only intensifies the emotional dimension of the painting. It is impossible not to feel gentleness, empathy, and also a sense of sacredness. The model for Chatterton was George Meredith, a poet and a novelist whose wife had an affair with Wallis just two years after this was painted, ouch, I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes. The Christ-like pose of the cadaver has since brought comparisons to religious art, such as Michelangelo’s “Pietà”. For Romanticists and Pre-Raphaelites, the artist was a secularised Christ-like figure, a dreamer, an idealist and a lover of beauty tortured by the unkind world. Therefore, Henry Wallis’s painting of Chatterton holds a deeper significance and meaning than a usual historical painting would; it isn’t just a portrait of a poet who had died the century before, it is an icon for all who believe in the religion of Art and Beauty.

There is an interesting anecdote from Chatterton’s life which occurred three days before he died; he was walking with his friend along the St Pancras Churchyard (the same one where Percy Shelley had nocturnal love meetings with Mary), lost in his thoughts the young poet fell into an open grave. His friend joked about it by saying he’d be delighted to help resurrect a genius from the grave, to which Chatterton replied: “My dear friend, I have been at war with the grave for some time now.” Just three days later, on 24th August 1770, he was dead.

This painting with the theme of suicide reminded me of the Manic Street Preachers’s song “Suicide is Painless”:

Through early morning fog I see
Visions of the things to be
The pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see
That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
I can take or leave it if I please
That game of life is hard to play
I’m gonna lose it anyway
The losing card of some delay
So this is all I have to say
That suicide is painless
….
That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
And you can do the same thing if you please…

Aesthetic Movement: Oriental Lyricism vs Sumptuousness of Renaissance

19 Feb

L’art pour l’art, art for art’s sake; welcome to the world of Aestheticism!

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 3, 1865-67

“Now at last the spring

draws swiftly to its finish.

How alone I am.”

(Natsume Soseki, Kusamakura)

I bet that hearing the young Chelsea bohemians and aesthetes, such as Whistler and Rossetti, boasting about their art for art’s sake motto, was like a slap in the face to all that Ruskin had achieved in his writings and life long devotion to art. The English aesthetes continued in their paintings what the French poet and a devotee of Beauty, Théophile Gautier started. Art for art’s sake principle claims that the only purpose of art is to create Beauty; art should be its own purpose, and ought to remain detached from society, politics, philosophy or science. Perfection of execution and harmony of colours were seen as important means of achieving the Beauty. In the preface to his novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835) Gautier wrote: “Nothing is truly beautiful except that which can serve for nothing; whatever is useful is ugly.” This view of art having merely an aesthetic value clashed with John Ruskin’s opinion that art should convey the moral truths and influence us on a spiritual level.

Representatives of this wave of aestheticism in England, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Albert Moore, Frederic Leighton and Edward Burne-Jones, filled their canvases, in most cases, with beautiful women in sumptuous surroundings, wearing gorgeous clothes and evoking a mood of languor and sweetness smelling of violets and roses. This obsession with Beauty went in two different directions; the first was the Oriental-inspired musings, while the other went into the past and revisited the luxurious settings of Titian and Giorgione’s paintings.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Le Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine, 1863-65

“The temple bell stops –

but the sound keeps coming

out of the flowers.”

(Basho, translated by Robert Bly)

Whistler is the representative of the first path; inspired by both his fellow painter Albert Moore and Japonism or the madness for all things Japanese, Ukiyo-e prints, porcelain and fabrics that ruined the minds of Parisian artists like plague, he created delicate, serene and lyrical paintings bathed in white and lightness. His famous “Symphonies”, the third one you can see above, were admired by his fellow painters such as James Tissot, Alfred Stevens and Edgar Degas, but also highly criticised too. Model for the girl lounging on the couch was Whistler’s mistress, model and muse Joanna Hiffernan who also posed for the Symphonies in White no. 1 and 2.

A painting needn’t always have a lady dressed in a kimono, white clothes or cherry blossom tree in it, for us to say that it was Japanese-inspired, it’s more about following the principles of Ukiyo-e prints and Japanese design by observing their use of perspective, flat portrayal of space, composition and bold outlines. This is also how Edgar Degas explored Japonism, by incorporating its interesting perspectives into his ballerina scenes, unlike Monet who opted for the simpler way: painting his wife in a colourful kimono.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Monna Vanna, 1866

Artists who took the second path, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, partly continued the Medieval reveries, but were mostly inspired by the luxurious, richly-coloured paintings of Renaissance ladies by Titian, Veronese and dreamy idyllic world of Giorgione. Ever since he painted “Bocca Bacciata” in 1859, Rossetti continually returns to the subject of a beautiful sensual and vain woman-enchantress with bloody lips of a vampire, clad in luxurious fabrics, surrounded with objects of beauty such as fans, jewellery or flowers. Her long and lustrous hair is ready to smother every man who dares to set his eyes upon her, her eyes are cold and large gemstones. “Monna Vanna” is another beautiful example of the rich-coloured dreamy splendour that Rossetti portrays, using different models but painting the same archetypal face with heavy-lidded eyes, strong neck and large lips.

Edward Burne-Jones, Le Chant d Amour (Song of Love), 1869-77

And at springtide, when the apple-blossoms brush the burnished bosom of the dove,
Two young lovers lying in an orchard would have read the story of our love;
Would have read the legend of my passion, known the bitter secret of my heart,
Kissed as we have kissed, but never parted as we two are fated now to part.
(Oscar Wilde, Flower of Love)

Edward Burne-Jones, a young admirer of Rossetti and a follower of Pre-Raphaelite ideas, also paints idealised worlds with much beauty but little content. In those reveries inspired by the Italian High Renaissance, like the “Song of Love” time stands still and figures are sinking deeper and deeper into the sweet languor that arises from imaginary sounds. Warm glowing colours are melting and draperies are heavy, as if carved from stone. Faces are strong and gazes distant. Claustrophobia and stillness almost painful, rapture captured for eternity, the height of ecstasy, the trembling of sighs, the caressing twilight that flickers in the distant sky, cold stone of the castle, eyelids closed by the intoxicating perfume of the tired tulips in the foreground.

No breeze, no movement, no bird is heard, the hand that lightly touches the keys of an instrument produces no sound, the drapery and the fine hair not dancing in the wind but stopped in the movement, the gaze is forever fixated. The figure on the right dressed in red, seems to be whispering Oscar Wilde’s lines “Had my lips been smitten into music by the kisses that but made them bleed” from “Flower of Love”. The painting itself has a mood of a flower which, unable to bloom or wither, chooses to stay crouching for eternity in the painfully agonizing stage of the bud.

Titian, Sacred and Profane Love, 1514

Just by looking at Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love” and Giorgione’s “Pastoral Concert”, it is easy to see their influence on both Burne-Jones’s “Song of Love” and Rossetti’s “Monna Vanna”. The same sweet languor pervades the air, the background reveals contours of a castle and a yellowish sky, and the draperies are similar as well. In Giorgione’s “Pastoral Concert”, people are enjoying the music and each others company as warmth and indolence hang over them like a bright soft cloud.

Giorgione, Pastoral Concert (Fête champêtre), 1508-09

So, which direction of Aesthetic movement in painting do you prefer; oriental or Renaissance? It is pretty clear that I am all for the serenity of Whistler’s Symphonies in white influenced by Japanese-influence, but both possess their beauty. Whistler’s paintings can sometimes seem distant and cold, and the intensity of Rossetti and Burne-Jones’s colours and details can sometimes be overwhelming.

John William Waterhouse and John Keats – Isabella and the Pot of Basil

31 Oct

John William Waterhouse’s portrayal of John Keats’s poem “Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil”, is dreamy, which is typical for his oeuvre, and, following the tradition of the Pre-Raphaelites, it is rich in details, but the seemingly innocent scene hides a darker theme. In this painting, Waterhouse beautifully unites the Medieval macabre imagination of Boccaccio with the sensuous imagery created by Keats in his poem.

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1907

In a secluded spot of a beautiful garden somewhere in Florence, a damsel known by the name of Isabella is kneeling beside a pot of basil, embracing it with her gentle white arms and “gazing amorously upon it with all her desire”. The air is warm and fragrant, but laced with sadness. The spot seems secretive and the path that leads to it is rarely used. With no living soul around her, she must have whispered the woes of her heart to the greenery around her: the grass, the ivy, the hedge, have all become friends. The fragile red poppy that grew next to her white gown, along with a skull on the pedestal of the basil pot, could be interpreted as signs of the other world. Poppy is a flower connected to dreams, sleep and death. She is dressed in a long white gown that touches the ground with intricate Medieval-style sleeves. Her auburn hair falls on her back as she tilts her head and sighs at the inequity of her destiny. How can a maiden so young and so pretty be so sad?

Ahh, but poor Isabella is ill from sadness. In a feverish state her gaze turned blurry from tears, and yet, with wild perseverance she wraps her weak arms around the pot, pining and weeping, day upon day, night after night. Her heart aches for something she can never have, and not even a thousand tears would bring the dear face of Lorenzo back to life; the anguish that sits on her chest is heavier than a stone, and yet her face shows longing rather than pain, as if her devotion, her pining and daydreaming upon that pot of fragrant basil bring her serenity. For, what else can she do but weep her days away?

John Keats’s narrative poem “Isabella” is adapted from a story in Boccaccio’s Decameron (IV day, 5th story) which tells the tale of Lisabetta and Lorenzo. (A note: Keats changed the setting of the story from Messina to Florence, and the name from Lisbetta to Isabella.) In Decameron, Lisbetta is a fair and well-manered maiden who lives in the town of Messina with her three brothers who want her to marry a rich and respectable man, but Lisbetta falls in love with Lorenzo, the dashing young employee of her brothers. After enjoying the delights of each other’s company, the young lovers are discovered and the brothers decide to take things into their hands. On day they take Lorenzo into the deepest darkest forest and murder him. Lisbetta, not hearing from Lorenzo for so long, grows impatient and worried until one night he appears in her dream and tells her what had happened and where his body lies. After that “she awoke and giving faith to the vision, wept bitterly.” Lisbetta finds his body in the forest, and despite her woes remains cool-headed and knowing that she can’t take the whole body, she cuts his head off and wraps it in a napkin and:

“…returned home, where, shutting herself in her chamber with her lover’s head, she bewept it long and bitterly, insomuch that she bathed it all with her tears, and kissed it a thousand times in every part. Then, taking a great and goodly pot, of those wherein they plant marjoram or sweet basil, she set the head therein, folded in a fair linen cloth, and covered it with earth, in which she planted sundry heads of right fair basil of Salerno; nor did she ever water these with other water than that of her tears or rose or orange-flower water. Moreover she took wont to sit still near the pot and to gaze amorously upon it with all her desire, as upon that which held her Lorenzo hid; and after she had a great while looked thereon, she would bend over it and fall to weeping so sore and so long that her tears bathed all the basil, which, by dint of long and assiduous tending, as well as by reason of the fatness of the earth, proceeding from the rotting head that was therein, waxed passing fair and very sweet of savour.”

To rest your eyes from Waterhouse, here is another version: Arthur Nowell, Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1904

She sits and weeps over that pot of basil with mad devotion, adoringly wrapping her arms around it, as is she was enchanted or cursed like the Lady of Shalott. It arises suspicion in her brothers and one day they turn out the pot and find a head, not yet rotten, of Lorenzo. In fear that things might get revealed, they move to Naples and Lisbetta is once again separated from her lover, or this time, from his head. It is indeed a pity that they moved Lorenzo’s rotting head because it fertilised the soil in the pot and the basil grew ever so lush and fragrant. Every good gardener knows this is the secret to a healthy plant!

Lisbetta eventually dies from sadness: “The damsel, ceasing never from lamenting and still demanding her pot, died, weeping; and so her ill-fortuned love had end.”

Poor, poor Isabella! Waterhouse must have thought that too, when he chose to portray the scene of a sad tale of love first written by Boccaccio and later sang by Keats whose eloquence and melancholic disposition added the lyrical and sensuous dimension. Who knew better than Keats the ache of wanting so desperately something you cannot have? Did he not yearn for the sweet nectar of life, and was denied to taste the very drink? Having died so young from consumption, did he not feel on his own skin the transience of everything which hurts like knives piercing your chest, and therefore nurtured beauty in his verses. Her is what his beautiful poetic vision tells us of Isabella and Lorenzo falling in love:

“They could not in the self-same mansion dwell

Without some stir of heart, some malady;

They could not sit at meals but feel how well

It soothed each to be the other by;

They could not, sure, beneath the same roof sleep

But to each other dream, and nightly weep.

With every morn their love grew tenderer,

With every eve deeper and tenderer still…”

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) was not a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood but he, like many other artists, accepted their style and subject matter. He too dipped his paint brush into the paint of dreams, and painted scenes from mythology, Medieval romances, love and longing. Pre-Raphaelites drew inspiration from poetry and even though for Rossetti Dante was God, we could rightfully say that John Keats was placed on a pedestal. Out of all English poets of Romanticism, Keats was the most lyrical, the one who emphasised the greatness of beauty. This ideal brought him together with the Pre-Raphaelites. It is very likely that Waterhouse had Keats’s and not Boccaccio’s version of the story in mind when he painted this painting. A tale of sad love was perfect for a Pre-Raphaelite canvas; before Waterhouse, both Rossetti with his infatuations with Dante’s Beatrice and her death, and Millais’ with his paintings such as ‘A Huguenot’ tackled the subject.

Keats’s poem “Isabella” is absolutely beautiful, but these verses are perhaps my favourite and tell us about the growing love between Isabella and Lorenzo:

“Parting they seem’d to tread upon the air,

 Twin roses by the zephyr blown apart

Only to meet again more close, and share      

 The inward fragrance of each other’s heart.

She, to her chamber gone, a ditty fair

 Sang, of delicious love and honey’d dart…”

Keats’s verses and the Pre-Raphaelite canvases both possess sensuality in abundance: Keats’s rich, delicate yet passionate descriptions match perfectly with the vibrantly coloured, richly textured and emotionally charged paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Out of all the stories I’ve read from “Decameron” this one is my favourite because underneath the sad tale of love scenario, which always appeals my romantic whimsy, it has a strong dark and macabre mood. I mean, the girl weeps and adoringly gazes at the pot of basil, knowing that the head of her lover is buried in it. Can you imagine the head which used to belong to a beautiful man she loved slowly rotting in the pot, his hair mingling with the roots of basil… It’s eerie and kind of revolting, and I say this with a creepy smile on my face because it appeals to me at the same time. John Keats, on the other hand, focused on the sensuality of the story and its melancholy, veiling it in beauty: rose petals, zephyrs, soft lips and sad gazes, everything is ripe, warmth, fragrant, in bloom. And this is how he ends the poem:

“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!”

So, happy birthday, John Keats!