Isabella and the Pot of Basil

1897 by John White Alexander
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The story of Isabella and the Pot of Basil became a popular inspiration for artists, particularly the Pre-Raphaelites, because of Keats’ poem, written in the early nineteenth-century and taken from Boccaccio’s fourteenth-century The Decameron. The Pre-Raphaelites’ interpretations were predictably romantic; what is refreshing about Alexander’s painting is it’s chilling darkness. The subject is dark; Isabella’s brothers kill her lover when they find out about their affair, but Isabella keeps the head, planting it in a pot of basil. The tenderness, love and quiet madness with which Isabella nourishes her pot is perfectly captured. Her face is ghostly pale, eyes closed, and her two fingers delicately stroke the pot in an action that is jarrringly disturbing. Death hangs in the air of this painting, in the shadowy palette and the absence of the basil itself; there is no relief of green, no comfort of life to be found, as the top of the pot is engulfed in a forbidding darkness.


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Filed under Nineteenth-Century

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