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Famous Pre-Raphaelite Paintings - Isabella and The Pot of Basil

Updated on September 17, 2013

Mysterious and Macabre - Isabella and The Pot of Basil

This is my favourite painting and I am fortunate that I live close to the gallery in which it is exhibited, the Laing Gallery in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England.

If you plan to go and see Isabella and The Pot of Basil, ring the Laing first to make sure she is 'at home', the painting is regularly borrowed by other galleries like the National Gallery for exhibits.

I like to go to the Laing and just stand in from of the painting and wonder at the artistic mastery of its creator, William Holman Hunt.

Isabella herself is amazing enough but look at the lustre on the watering vase on the floor and the shimmer of the pot of basil Isabella so lovingly embraces.

But don't be fooled, Isabella is not happy - she is mourning the loss of her lover Lorenzo and the reason she caresses the pot is because it has his severed head inside of it.

Does this painting intrigue you now?

But what inspired William Holman Hunt to paint it? And who modelled for Isabella?

Read on to find out more.

William Holman-Hunt
William Holman-Hunt | Source

The Artist, William Holman-Hunt

William Hobman-Hunt was born in April 1827. He changed his name to Holman-Hunt after discovering it was misspelt on his Christening certificate.

Holman-Hunt is best known for being one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

He was initially rejected for a place at the Royal Academy but was accepted second time and from the outset, he was a maverick figure in the world of early-Victorian English art.

Holman-Hunt had a dislike of the 18th century English painter, Joshua Reynolds, founder of the Royal Academy and in his early days at the R.A. blazed a trail for artistic individuality which flew in the face of everything they were taught at the Academy.

It was inevitable that Holman-Hunt would attract other like-minded artists to him and from his rather anarchic methods of study grew the Pre-Raphelite Brotherhood.

Isabella and The Pot of Basil is typical of the output of the brotherhood.

Pre-Raphaelite artists typically showed disdain for most art after Raphael (Hence Pre-Rafaelite). They embraced a return to the century leading up to the Renaissance and favoured an artistic style which was rich in colour and showed an intensity and realism to all they painted.

Nature was at the heart of what they created and they eschewed the artistic theories of Reynolds and his contemporaries, though they did admire Romanticism. Their hearts lay in realism and the ancient medieval culture - a time before art became stylised.

The eighteenth century had been a period of the most stylised art, with rich landowners creating their garden spaces to look like French landscapes; planting trees to deliberately frame a vista; art had become in some respects an amazing conceit and the Pre-Raphaelites called a halt to any advance on that conceit in their own works.

Holman-Hunt and John Everett Millais were considered 'realists', they painted as close to what they saw as they could and Isabella and perhaps The Pot Of Basil is perhaps Holman-Hunt's most realist painting.

John Keats
John Keats | Source

The Story of Isabella and The Pot of Basil - John Keats

Keats poem is actually called Isabella, or The Pot of Basil and it is one stanza of the poem on which Isabella and The Pot of Basil is based.

Keats himself created the poem from Boccaccio's Decameron.

The story tells of a local landowner who wants to get his beautiful, gentle daughter, Isabella, married to a local neighbour who is rich. He puts everything in place to make this happen but Isabella falls in love with Lorenzo, one of her brother's workers. When her brothers find out, they murder Lorenzo to ensure Isabella marries within her own class.

Lorenzo speaks to Isabella in dreams, appearing as a ghost to tell her what her brothers did to him and Isabella cannot cope with the grief.

In the stanza on which William Holman-Hunt's painting is based, Keats writes:-

'And so she ever fed it with thin tears,

Whence thick, and green, and beautiful it grew,

So that it smelt more balmy than its peers,

Of basil-tufts in Florence, for it drew

Nurture besides, and life from human fears,

From the fast mouldering head, there shut from view,

So that the jewel, safely casketed,

Came forth, and in perfumed 'leafits' spread.'

And the painting certainly suggests that the basil is growing very well. Look at the verdant leaves behind Isabella's hair. But in that pot is Lorenzo's head. The head which Isabella herself, in her tortured state, severed from his dead body .

The Keats poem goes on to suggest that the people surrounding Isabella noticed that it was finer than any other basil growing in Florence and the rumour begins to spread of her madness.

In any event, it is a tragic tale and William Holman-Hunt interprets it very well.

Fanny Holman-Hunt
Fanny Holman-Hunt | Source

Who Modelled For Isabella?

Keats poem is epic. It is many, many stanzas long and for many of those, he concentrates on the 'wasting' Isabella.

Isabella, so grief-stricken that she neglects her self in the care and attention of her dead lover's severed head and the basil she planted to cover it up.

A look at the painting, Isabella and The Pot of Basil does not show an Isabella wasting away.


Because William Holman-Hunt used his muse, his wife Fanny, to portray Isabella.

When he painted Isabella and The Pot of Basil, Fanny was pregnant and this accounts for her rather full figure.

William Holman-Hunt decided to portray Isabella as pregnant as well as lovelorn and grief-stricken.

He never considered using another model, it was always going to be Fanny who would be Isabella and at the particular time, she was rather beautiful and bountiful.

Sadly, Fanny Holman-Hunt died in childbirth a few years later after they had moved to Italy.

It is difficult to imagine Isabella any other way than Holman-Hunt portrays her, so I am pleased he chose Fanny as his model.

What Paintings or Pictures Inspire You?

I chose this painting because it was introduced to me by a wonderful tutor.

She breathed life into Isabella by reading us Keats' poem and taking us to the gallery to see William Holman-Hunt's Isabella and The Pot of Basil close up.

I could see his brushstrokes and the Isabella I saw was the one created for me by my lecturer.

Isabella had become, for me, flesh and blood - not a work of fiction but a real being and William Holman-Hunt's realist style had given her colour and form.

What painting or picture has inspired you? Share your thoughts in the comments. I look forward to reading them.

Many thanks for reading.


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