Tag Archives: sad

Rogelio de Egusquiza – The End of the Ball

5 May

“I am like a winged creature who is too rarely allowed to use its wings. Ecstasies do not occur often enough.”

(Anais Nin)

Rogelio de Egusquiza, The End of the Ball, 1879

Dear diary,

All was quiet in the salon, but laughter, loud voices of drunk guests and music were coming from the ballroom. I had too much champagne and my cheeks were burning so I retreated to the salon for a while. The enveloping silence seemed strange after the noise in the ballroom. My heart was beating loudly under the corset laced so tightly that it made me wonder how it would beat at all. I reclined on the sofa and laid my head on my hand. Warm orange light from the lamp on the end table cast a warm glow on the chamber and I easily sank into reverie. The gorgeous pink tulle dress adorned with crimson red roses that I had made especially for the occasion made me feel as if I were a capricious butterfly flying from flower to flower, dancing with one gentleman and then with the other. But now its stiffness made it hard to breathe and I couldn’t wait to take it off. The roses which were fresh and fragrant just this afternoon were now withered. The soft fabric was now soaked with my sweat and heavy perfume. My aching feet longed to walk freely on the fur carpet, their silk confinement was tormenting, but how they made me dance with Julio but moments ago! I knew he would come, even though mama hoped he wouldn’t.

My heart was beating so fast when I saw him approaching me; so tall and slim, dressed in a dark suit in the latest fashion, with his silky chestnut hair and dark eyes that seemed to look through me. He took my hand and the orchestra started playing again a beautiful tune which brought tears to my eyes, for it filled me with ecstasy and melancholy at the same time. I felt Julio’s warmth so close to my body, and yet I could feel his absence as well. I was too aware that the music would stop, the dance end and we would part until… who knew? Julio was unpredictable with his travels, I never knew when and if his next letter would arrive, and what other ladies held his attention. I longed to join him in his travels, but I knew I was too weak, weak and scared of life I would be no companion. I felt his strong arm around my waist as the music carried us in swirls across the room. The scent of flowers in the air mingled with the rich manly smell of Julio’s body. Minutes felt like a dream. I followed his steps and laid my head on his shoulder. I wondered whether he would inhale the scent of my hair.

I wondered what he was thinking, but dared not assume that this moment held as much importance to him as it did to me. Julio was a man that didn’t belong to anyone, and I was but a girl who longed for the ecstasies in life; a winged creature who was too rarely allowed to use its wings. These kind of ecstasies did not occur often enough. I knew that the very next day I would be sitting in the drawing room and doing embroidery under mother’s watchful eyes, and I felt tears swelling in my eyes when I compared the endless rapture of the moment with the boredom that awaits me, from dawn to dusk. Such was my life, perhaps one day I would dare to sail the seas that I dream of and that Julio had told me about. But at that moment, breathing the same air as Julio, nothing else existed for me but the pure delight of his presence. I softly sank my nails into the fabric of his coat and sighed: I wish this moment would never end… But I could hear the orchestra’s playing was getting quieter and the enchanting tune was slowly drawing to an end. I closed my eyes and…

Your Isabel

Rogelio de Egusquiza, A reverie during the ball, 1879

Here is a photograph that Rogelio de Egusquiza used to paint the painting

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Jan Steen – The Lovesick Maiden

13 Dec

Today we’ll take a look at a very interesting painting from the Dutch Golden Age; “The Lovesick Maiden” by Jan Steen.

Jan Steen, The Lovesick Maiden, c. 1660

In a typical Dutch interior of the period, a pale young woman is suffering from a terrible illness, the one for which no cure has ever been found – love! She is situated in the middle of the canvas as if she was an actress playing a role on the stage. Tragedy is the genre. On her right side is her maid servant, on her left is a doctor dressed in unusual clothes. His hat in particular is strange, and look at the way the servant is eyeing him. He is checking the girl’s pulse. The setting is the girl’s bedroom, there is a bed in the background, in the left corner there are bed heaters and the girl’s appearance reveals an intimate setting; she is wearing her white linen night cap, and she only carelessly threw on her ermine trimmed little coat to keep her warm I guess, her rounded white bosom are peeking above her garish red corset. She is too in distressed to care for frivolous matters such as clothes! Too ill to care, and still too healthy she appears to be sitting there like that instead of lying in bed. And that doctor too looks too much like a comedy actor. That’s because he is a quack doctor. Next to the girl’s feet a little dog is sleeping. In the context of a love scene, a dog usually represents fidelity. What exactly is she faithful to here; to her unrequited love, or to her love sickness?

I can really imagine her thinking these thoughts from Bob Dylan’s song “Love Sick” as she is sitting there with her head on her hand, her leg raised up, her rosy cheeks and her furrowed brow, half-lamenting and half-sulking:

Did I hear someone tell a lie?
Did I hear someone’s distant cry?
I spoke like a child; you destroyed me with a smile
While I was sleeping

I’m sick of love but I’m in the thick of it
This kind of love I’m so sick of it….

I’m sick of love; I hear the clock tick
This kind of love; I’m love sick

Sometimes the silence can be like the thunder
Sometimes I feel like I’m being plowed under
Could you ever be true? I think of you
And I wonder

I’m sick of love; I wish I’d never met you
I’m sick of love; I’m trying to forget you

Just don’t know what to do
I’d give anything to be with you

Decades before this was painted, in 1610, the French physician Jacques Ferrard published a study of this “disease of the fantasy”, named “Of Lovesickness or Erotic Melancholy: A Scientific Discourse that teaches how to know the essence, causes, signs, and remedies of this disease of the fantasy“. Here he names the symptoms of this illness that this Jan Steen’s pale girl which also have: “Lovesickness gives rise to a pale and wan complexion, joined by a slow fever that modern practitioners call amorous fever, to palpitations of the heart, swelling of the face, depraved appetite, a sense of grief, sighing, causeless tears, insatiable hunger, raging thirst, fainting, oppressions, suffocations, insomnia, headaches, melancholy, epilepsy, madness, uterine fury, satyriasis, and other pernicious symptoms that are, for the most part, without mitigation or cure other than through the established medical remedies for love and erotic melancholy… These symptoms of disease have caused many to believe that love is a kind of poison that is generated within the body itself…” (quote found here.)

Jan Steen, Physician’s Visit, 1660

In this painting, a sculpture of Cupid in the shadowy upper left corner, above the doors which lead into the outdoors stands as a symbol of love that is tormenting her. This is however just one painting in a row; Jan Steen made an entire series of paintings that portray love as an illness and a doctor as a quack. It was a comedy genre beloved in his time and especially in his home town of Leiden because the Leiden University produced many fine doctors in the country. Here is another example that he made, the same year in fact, called “The Physician’s Visit”. In this example, the painting of Venus and Adonis on the wall tell us that Steen’s girl is suffering from lovesickness. The physician is feeling her pulse because that was a way of knowing whether the patient suffers from the “erotic melancholy”. The illness could also be detected through the urine, and we can see that the maid is holding an urine bottle. Also, the little boy in the left corner is a Cupid dressed in contemporary costume, ready to shot his arrow.

Apart from doing mischief, Cupid was especially fond of idleness and even in the Ancient times Ovid wrote how avoiding idleness makes you immune to Cupid’s arrows. During the Renaissance it was thought that idleness in fact triggers erotic melancholy. “In “L’Antidote d’amour”, Jean Aubery delineates the “particular dispositions” that make one susceptible to passion and thus to love-sickness. Chief among these are idleness, youth, luxury, and springtime. When all of these factors are present, passion is inevitable. Why are artisans and laborers exempt from erotic melancholy, even during springtime and even if they are young? Because, the author concludes, they know neither luxury nor idleness.” (Virginia Krause; “Idle Pursuits: Literature and Oisiveté in the French Renaissance”)

If Steen’s lovesick maidens had been doing their embroidery regularly or had other occupations, they might have avoided the trap of pining and yearning. All in all, these painting are comedies of love and everyday life and the possible buyer most likely had a good sense of humor.

Wladyslaw Ślewiński – Orphan from Poronin

2 Aug

Wladyslaw Ślewiński, Orphan from Poronin, c. 1906

One gaze at Wladyslaw Ślewiński’s painting “Orphan from Poronin” is enough to make it stay etched in the memory forever because the face he painted is unforgettable, even though it didn’t belong to a person extinguished by wealth or importance in society. Gentle face of this poor orphan boy touches one right in the heart. Just look at him; in that worn-out coat which might have fitted him years before and trousers ever so slightly ripped at the knee, and that odd hat. He looks ill at ease seating at that chair, his fright and anxiety captured for eternity on canvas. The drabness of the wall behind him seems to mirror his thoughts. Upright and stiff he appears, so much so that you can imagine drops of sweat sliding down his forehead and a lump in his throat, preventing him to speak or even move.

The most interesting part of this portrait is the face because it speaks of so many feelings and gives the painting a psychological depth which separates it from a simple social realism style paintings. Firstly, that strange sickly yellowish coloured skin, hair hidden under the hat, no eyebrows, thin lips tightly together, and a pair of large grey-blue eyes, bordering on tears, which radiate fear, desperation and panic. It lingers in the memory because it touches what is human in all of us. The form of his body, that clear fluid outline of his coat, the shape of his face with a thick black line contouring the jaw, that strange sick yellowish colour of his skin, and the formless way the hands were painted reminds me so much of Edvard Munch which is somewhat strange because Ślewiński’s artistic style was often compared to that of his friend Paul Gauguin. The two met in 1889 and spent some time painting together in Brittany. Wladyslaw Ślewiński (1856-1918) was a Polish painter who was educated in Paris and spent most of his life in France. Still, this painting during his stay in Poland from 1905 to 1910, before returning to Paris again. The awkwardness of the pose also reminds me of Munch’s painting “Puberty” where a girl is sitting on the bed with an equally haunting face and doesn’t seem to know what to do with herself.

Amedeo Modigliani, The Little Peasant, c. 1918

Wladyslaw Ślewiński’s painting irresistibly reminded me of one painting by Modigliani, which might sound strange since Modi is known for his sensuous nudes. Nonetheless, the same year that Ślewiński died, Jewish-Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani who would himself be dead in two years, painted his painting “The Little Peasant”. Stylistically it is instantly recognisable as Modigliani’s work; a sad looking elongated figure in a sombre interior. This little peasant boy has the same sadness, but his gaze possesses none of the eloquence of Ślewiński’s orphan boy. He has a similar hat and his suit is equally worn out, bursting at the buttons, and look how clumsy his hands are. His motionless and mute expressionless statue-like rosy-cheeked face and his distant gaze don’t have the psychological strength as the orphan’s blue eyes have, but it has an incomparable silent and haunting beauty.

Victorian Photography: Girls in Silk Cages, Pale and Fragile as Lilies

10 Jun

A friend recently reminded me of the photograph of Ellen Terry that you see below and its mood of sadness and wistfulness struck a chord with me. Naturally, I thought of many other Victorian photographs of girls in contemplation so I decided to share them all in this post; they are perfect for daydreaming.

Sadness (Ellen Terry at Age Sixteen), photo by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1864

All of the photographs here were taken by female photographers: Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) who is perhaps a pandan to the Pre-Raphaelites in the field of photography because of her inclination toward the Arthurian world and medieval romances, and Clementina Maude Hawarden (1822-1865) who often took photos of her daughters and is sometimes called “the first fashion photographer” because many of her photos feature the lovely crinoline gowns from the era, full of ribbons and flounces.

What draws me to these photographs is their dream-like quality; they are like windows to the long lost worlds, they evoke as much feelings from me as a poem can, they portray beautifully the inner world of Victorian girls and young women. Gorgeous fashions and delicacy of the fabrics, dazzling play of light and shadow, a tinge of melancholy and wistfulness. In this long lost world from the other side of the mirror long haired dreamy maidens in their dazzling silk and tulle cages are shown reading or praying, or travelling the landscapes of their thoughts, sitting by the window and gazing into the outside world of freedom and strangeness; girls as fragile as lily flower, with faces pale from the moonlight, yearning hearts and silent tears that smell of jasmine, trapped in claustrophobic interiors of damask and daydreams, touching life only through veils, “seeing it dimly through tears”, drunk, not from cherry cordial, but from the heavy fragrance of roses in their vases. Caught between girlhood and adulthood, in their dreamy interiors, with mirrors and books, they are gazing through the glistening bars of their cages, in silence, for the captive birds sing no ditties.

“I’m wearying to escape into that glorious world, and to be always there: not seeing it dimly through tears, and yearning for it through the walls of an aching heart: but really with it, and in it.” (Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights)

Turgenev’s Maidens: Natalya and Asya

2 Apr

In this post we’ll take a look at “Turgenev’s Maid”; a type of female character typical for Turgenev and often found in his novellas and novels.

Nicolae Grigorescu, A Flower Among Flowers, 1880

Although equally important for Russian Realism, Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev is often overlooked when it comes to Russian writers, somewhat overshadowed by the more famous Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Out of those three writers, Turgenev was the one influenced by the progressive ideas and philosophy of Western Europe and even spent majority of his life in France where he died too. His mother was a tyrannical woman and his parents’ marriage an unhappy one, so Turgenev decided to stay a bachelor. There’s elegance in his writings and an emphasis on nature and its lyric beauty. There’s nothing dramatic about his writing, but somehow it lingers in the memory and you find yourself pondering over some things that meant very little the moment you were reading it. Also, his words leave some kind of quiet sadness and a sense of futility against life, love and nature. Can you stop the flower from withering, sun from setting, springs from lingering one after another and passing?

Turgenev’s first novel was “Rudin”, first published in 1856 in a literary magazine “Sovremennik” (“The Contemporary”). In this novel, he laid a foundation for his future characters and themes by introducing a female type of heroine which came to be called “Turgenev’s Maid” and a hero who is a young superfluous man. Turgenev is continuing and developing the types of characters that Pushkin had started in his novel “Eugene Onegin”. Characters follow the similar pattern in his novella “Asya”, published in 1858. Turgenev’s odes to failure in love.

Photo by Frieda Rike.

A typical Turgenev’s maiden is a girl whose introverted, reserved, modest and shy exterior hides a passionate and poetic soul that only few people see, but is hidden to the rest. She is romantic and dreamy, but not in a delusional Emma Bovary kind of way, but rather this romantic nature arises from idealism and life spent in the idyllic countryside isolation which can sometimes make her inexperienced in society. She is educated, both in history and geography as in daydreaming, and often speaks several languages. She possesses a gentle, girlish, unassuming beauty and is modest in behaviour and the way she dresses. Turgenev’s maiden often falls in love with man unworthy of her; weak and passive idealists who are excellent in conversation but incapable of doing something with their life. As I already said, Turgenev’s heroines draw heavily on Pushkin’s wonderful Tatyana Larina from “Eugene Onegin” and here is what D.S. Mirsky says about it in his discussion about Turgenev: “The strong, pure, passionate, and virtuous woman, opposed to the weak, potentially generous, but ineffective and ultimately shallow man, was introduced in literature by Pushkin, and recurs again and again in the work of the realists, but nowhere more insistently than in Turgenev’s.”

William Powell Firth

Natalya Alexyevna Lasunskaya

Natalys is a shy seventeen year old girl who lives in the countryside with her mother. On the outside she seems reserved, very secretive and cold, but that is just her way of hiding her feelings from the world and her dominant mother. She is introduced in the story in the fifth chapter with these words: “Darya Mihailovna’s daughter, Natalya Alexyevna, at a first glance might fail to please. She had not yet had time to develop; she was thin, and dark, and stooped slightly. But her features were fine and regular, though too large for a girl of seventeen. Specially beautiful was her pure, smooth forehead above fine eyebrows, which seemed broken in the middle. She spoke little, but listened to others, and fixed her eyes on them as though she were forming her own conclusions. She would often stand with listless hands, motionless and deep in thought; her face at such moments showed that her mind was at work within.

But further quotes reveal to us that Natalya’s feelings are strong and that her mother doesn’t understand her personality at all: “But Natalya was not absent-minded; on the contrary, she studied diligently; she read and worked eagerly. Her feelings were strong and deep, but reserved; even as a child she seldom cried, and now she seldom even sighed and only grew slightly pale when anything distressed her.

Heinrich Vogeler, Spring (Portrait of Martha Vogeler), 1897

Life in the beautiful countryside amongst family friends has made her inexperienced with the ways of the world and she is a perfect pray for Rudin, a poor intellectual unsure of what he wants from life or love, indulging himself in shallow melancholy and praising highly the courageous heroes of literature and history while he himself is beneath them, both in spirit and intellect. He takes a pleasure in seducing Natalya because his feelings aren’t as deep or as pure as hers are, and since he had many failed loves in the past, he doesn’t take the relationships seriously. For him, it’s just a past time, but in Natalya he has awoken a whole new set of feelings, ones that she only read about in literature. After Natalya admits her love for Rudin to her mother, and is met with mother’s disapproval, she meets Rudin secretly at the brake of dawn somewhere in the meadow to tell him the sad truth, expecting him to fight for their love.

Marie Antoinette (2006)

This is their poignant, sad and bitter dialogue from chapter IX:

“‘What do you think we must do now?’

‘What we must do?’ replied Rudin; ‘of course submit.’

‘Submit,’ repeated Natalya slowly, and her lips turned white.

‘Submit to destiny,’ continued Rudin. ‘What is to be done? I know very well how bitter it is, how painful, how unendurable. But consider yourself, Natalya Alexyevna; I am poor. It is true I could work; but even if I were a rich man, could you bear a violent separation from your family, your mother’s anger? . . . No, Natalya Alexyevna; it is useless even to think of it. It is clear it was not fated for us to live together, and the happiness of which I dreamed is not for me!’

All at once Natalya hid her face in her hands and began to weep. Rudin went up to her.”

What you have just read is a typical Turgenev-style ending; the heroine is too passionate and her feelings too strong for the passive hero. It’s not that Rudin doesn’t love Natalya, it’s more that he is incapable of being himself, living his own life, to commit to someone. Once rejected, Natalya doesn’t go on daydreaming of Rudin or returning to him. Instead, just like Pushkin’s Tatyana, she walks away with dignity and self-respect.

William Dyce, Portrait of Princess Victoria, the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria and Albert, 1848

Asya

In “Asya”, the narrator, a lonely forty year-old bachelor named N.N. tells us the sad love story of his youth. His memory sets the novella in a small and picturesque town on the Rhine, whose shore is littered with romantic Medieval castles and emerald green hills; a perfect setting for a fleeting, ephemeral romance. The narrator comes there on a holiday and meets two fellow Russians, a brother and a sister; Gaguine and Asya. Since they are the only Russians in town, they soon befriend. The narrator develops an intellectual bond with Gaguine but is soon enamoured by his strange and pretty younger sister Asya who is very shy around him at first.

This is what Turgenev tells us of their first encounter: “My presence appeared to embarrass her; but Gaguine said to her, “don’t be shy; he will not bite you.” These words made her smile, and a few moments after she spoke to me without the least embarrassment. She did not remain quiet a moment. Hardly was she seated than she arose, ran towards the house, and reappeared again, singing in a low voice; often she laughed, and her laugh had something strange about it—one would say that it was not provoked by anything that was said, but by some thoughts that were passing through her mind. Her large eyes looked one in the face openly, with boldness, but at times she half closed her eyelids, and her looks became suddenly deep and caressing.

And this is how Turgenev imagined her to look like. Again, she has a very girly appeal, just like Natalya and other Turgenev’s maidens: “The young girl whom he called his sister at first sight appeared to me charming. There was an expression quite peculiar, piquant and pretty at times, upon her round and slightly brown face; her nose was small and slender, her cheeks chubby as a child’s, her eyes black and clear. Though well proportioned, her figure had not yet entirely developed.

Photo by by SophieKoryn. “You consider my behaviour improper,” her face seemed to say; “all the same, I know you’re admiring me.” (Asya)

Asya can be rapturous and wild at one moment, without any regard for social conventions, only to become shy the next moment, wistful and lost in her thoughts. Here is an example to illustrate the point: on one occasion, Asya breaks a branch from a tree and plays with it as if it was a gun. When they encounter a group of shocked English tourists, she starts singing in a loud voice just to spite them. But later in the evening, she is the epitome of elegance and demureness: “When we arrived, she immediately went to her room, and did not reappear until dinner, decked out in her finest dress, her hair dressed with care, wearing a tight-fitting bodice, and gloves on her hands. At table she sat with dignity, scarcely tasted anything, and drank only water. It was evident she wished to play a new rôle in my presence: that of a young person, modest and well-bred. Gaguine did not restrain her; you could see that it was his custom to contradict her in nothing. From time to time he contented himself with looking at me, faintly shrugging his shoulders, and his kindly eye seemed to say: “She is but a child; be indulgent.

Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria in “Victoria” (2016)

Here is a little conversation from the ninth chapter which also reveals Asya’s lack of feeling for proper behavior:

And what is it that you like about women?” she asked, turning her head with a childlike curiosity.

“What a singular question!” I cried.

“I shouldn’t have asked you such a question, should I? Forgive me; I am accustomed to say whatever comes into my head. That is why I am afraid to speak.”

“Speak, I beg you! Fear nothing, I am so delighted at seeing you less wild.

Juliette Lamet by Melanie Rodriguez for Melle Ninon.

The narrator seems more interested in the mysterious aura around her, than actually in love with her, he says himself: “Oh! that little girl—she is, indeed, an enigma.”

Here are a few more quotes to get you interested:

I understood what attracted me towards this strange young girl: it was not only the half-savage charm bestowed upon her lovely and graceful young figure, it was also her soul that captivated me.

I do not know what womanly charm suddenly appeared upon her girlish face. Long afterwards the charm of her slender figure still lingered about my hand; for a long time I felt her quick breathing near me, and I dreamed of her dark eyes, motionless and half closed, with her face animated, though pale, about which waved the curls of her sweet hair.” (Chapter IX)

William Powell Frith, The Proposal, 1856

The end of their love, again the hero suddenly turns cold and steps back from the affections that he himself started in the first place:

“So all is at an end,” I replied once more; “at an end—; and we must part.”

“There was in my heart,” I continued, “a feeling just springing up, which, if you had left it to time, would have developed! You have yourself broken the bond that united us; you have failed to put confidence in me.” (chapter XVI)

To end the post I would like to quote a fellow blogger at “A Russian Affair” who focuses on Russian literature. Here are her brilliant observations on Turgenev’s themes and style from the post “Typically Turgenev“:”Not a lot happens in Turgenev’s works. The situation at the beginning is more or less the same as the one in the end. All that remains is memories and what-ifs. The reader has to content himself with plenty of beautiful atmospheric scenes and contemplations. (…) You read Turgenev with your heart.

And a beautifully put thought regarding love from her post “Love in Turgenev’s work“: “It all starts in high spirits; the weather is ’magnificent’ and ’unusually good for the time of the year’ and the surroundings are idyllic. The sudden appearance of an exceptionally pretty girl surprises the narrator. He falls in love, but he never gets the girl, and remains a bachelor. Again and again Turgenev describes being in love, but he never dares to let it blossom into a relationship, nor in his stories, nor in real life.

I hope you decide to read some of Turgenev’s work, if you still haven’t and that you enjoy it as much as I did.

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!

Jean-Baptiste Greuze – The Complain of the Watch

29 Jul

The flower bloomed and faded. The sun rose and sank. The lover loved and went.” (Virginia Woolf)

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Complain of the Watch, 1770

In a sad room a sad faced young thing is sitting on a chair. Indulged in a wistful reverie, she looks as ethereal and pale as a ghost, so lost in her thoughts that if someone happened to walk into her room, she’d probably seize to notice him. Behind her a bed and a barren wall as grey as her thoughts. Dressed in a loose white dress, an undergarment or a nightgown, the blonde girl is gazing in the distance with a pensive face expression. She’s holding a watch in her hand. Thin rays of sun coming through the small window provide the light in this poorly furnished attic room. Every night when the bells of a near-by church announce midnight, thin-legged spiders walk up and down the walls of her sad abode, greenish from the mould, weaving webs in the corners of the room, weaving webs in every corner of her heart. How could someone so young look so sad? Who dared to fill those blue eyes with tears and burden those slender white shoulders with woe?

Next to the girl is a small table, and on it a basket, some flowers and a letter. A letter which must hide all the secrets of her aching heart, a letter which hides the mystery behind her wistful reverie. I don’t know what the letter says, neither do you, but a little blackbird which sat on my windowsill today knows all the secrets from centuries gone by: he is a time travelling bird. It is a long tale of woe which I hesitate to retell, but I will tell you this: the lover loved and went, leaving nothing but a watch as a memory and empty words of goodbye; I can only assume it took more time for ink to dry than it did for his feelings of affection to cool down. Poor, poor girl, with her Rococo face and her Rococo sadness, what is she to do with her life now? Abandoned, alone, breathing in the perfume of lost hopes and sadness, while her wedding gown is being slowly eaten by moths in the wardrobe, her bouquet of flowers slowly withering as hours linger.