If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Course: Europe 1800 - 1900 > Unit 4

Lesson 2: The Pre-Raphaelites and mid-Victorian art

Pre-Raphaelites: Curator's choice - Millais's Isabella

Curator Jason Rosenfeld reveals the story behind John Everett Millais's painting Isabella and explains why this historical work is inherently modern. Millais's Isabella is one of over 150 works currently on show at Tate Britain in the exhibition Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde. Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde is at Tate Britain (2013). Created by Tate.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

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 Malay 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 prb the initials of the Brotherhood as well as his signature and it was the work which established a kind of manifesto for what the artists were trying to achieve in painting Malee's 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 Clarke 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 Specter who takes her to this site in the forest she digs up the body she realizes 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 fantastic story so uplifting but it comes from John Keats Keats got the subject from Boccaccio early Italian writer so it has an authentic medieval root this is a key facet of pre-raphaelite art they wanted to go back to art from before the time of the Raphael lights or the followers of Raphael the high Renaissance artists 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 mill a dozen what's really radical about pictures in this period is he takes narrative and he treats it almost cinematically instead of giving you a 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 you