Leila Rouhi

Master of Art in English Literature


How do Millais’ paintings of Mariana and Isabella visualize Tennyson’s and Keats’s poems of the same title?


Millais was born in Southampton, England. He started drawing when he was four years old. He also won several medals for his paintings. In 1847, he met Holman Hunt in Royal Academy and they worked together. When he was nine years old he won his first major prize, the Society of Art’s Silver medal for a drawing of the Battle of Bannockburn. Then, one month after his eleventh birthday, he entered the Academy school as the youngest one.                                                                                                                            (1979, 24)
Millais’s paintings with their unique and new styles are fascinating and admirable. I myself like the way and the reason for the change he gives to the painting and to art. I think it is not just interesting to follow the old ways or methods of doing something, especially painting. And, Millais is still famous because his methods and thoughts are new and challenging. He is one of the main painters of the nineteen century and perhaps the best one who developed a new path in art and especially in painting.

Yet, what I am interested to explain in this essay is not mainly his challenging style and out look in painting, it is the power and delicacy with which he portrays Keats’ and Tennyson’s poems. So, I try to compare Millais’s paintings with these poet’s songs. And, I think it is helpful to refer to The Pre-Raphaelite movement and their main founders beforehand.

The Pre-Raphaelite Movement

In September 18485 seven men founded a secret society called the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The term was chosen from their conviction that the painting of Raphael was the origin of a destroyed academic tradition. Three friends and former students of the Royal Academy of Art, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett
Millais were the main members. Much of their subjects matter was based on sources such as Sir Thomas Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur, or through the more recent literature of Walter Scott, John Keats, and Alfred Tennyson.                                                                (1979., 31)

The combining together of the three talents, the high-minded William Holman Hunt, the impulsive Dante Gabriel Rosette, and Millais not only resulted in their creation of a new English School of Painting, but also changed at least for ten years or so, the whole course and direction of Millais own life and work. These three men decided to go back beyond Raphael and paint from nature herself and to put what they saw straight onto canvas without painting on a dark brown canvas or using a brown varnish.                    (1979, 24)

It was at the Academy Schools that he met Holman Hunt and Rossetti and these three brilliant young men founded together the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.              (1974, 19)

Regarding Pre-Raphaelite painters, Stephen Fliegal explains:

"It comprised artists of varying talents, artistic personalities, and visual tendencies. When most of us think of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, we generally summon to mind memorable, almost iconic images of beautiful long-haired women in medieval dress, or scenes drawn from English history and Arthurian legend. While the Pre-Raphaelites were also interested in contemporary Victorian life, there is, to be sure, a fascination; some might call it an obsession, with that vast period we know as the Middle Age. The works of the Pre-Raphaelites are the best-known of all English paintings, and yet there has been a tendency over the years to dismiss them as mere Victoriana, and to deny their proper place in the history of art. The Pre-Raphaelite movement itself crossed the second half of the 19 th century. As an artistic movement, it cannot be defined simply as a single style since."

In the early nineteenth century, the Gothic style of architecture was increasingly used by owners of actual medieval manors and castles as the appropriate style for renovations and as a link with English antique. The art critic and social philosopher, John Ruskin, was one of the most eloquent and widely read champions of Gothic architecture during the 19 th century.

Among the earliest efforts of the Brotherhood was a plan to illustrate Keats’s poem "Isabella". Each member was to submit a design for the poem, which was to be executed entirely on these new principles. Millais’s painting of 1849 clearly reveals a deliberated attempt at working in an unfamiliar and archaic style. Yet, at the same time there was something contrived and unnatural about that painting, probably the result of

Millais’s early intellectual uncertainty. What was immediately noticeable in Isabella was the use of bright pigments on a white ground, a feature of Pre-Raphaelite technique.

Another example of Millais’s highly mediavalized paintings was this illustration of Mariana of 1851which is directly motivated by lines from the Tennyson’s poem. Millais is clearly fascinated here with the coloring of medieval manuscripts and the tine brush technique of Memling and Van Eyck. The deep blue of Mariana’s dress contrasts clearly with the deep colors of the stained glass that Millais copied from the-windows of Merton College Chapel in Oxford.

As Baldry explains in his book, their views were direct and clear. Naturalism was the basis of their creed, and they did not accept anything in art without reproducing nature with minute exactness. They believed that every detail of the actual object had to study carefully and no part was unimportant.                                                                   (1899, 8)     

A new philosophy was replacing old ideas of the eighteenth-century which emphasized truth and beauty found in Nature. In 1848, France and much of Europe were involved in revolutions, but in England there were Chartist demonstrations asking for Parliamentary reform for the poor. And, Millais who was just nineteen years old and Holman Hunt were observing these events and were starting to practice new series of
theories about painting. Millais also was interested in a book of Lasinio engravings after wall painting in the Campo Santo at Pisa that were considered interesting for their freshness, and innocence, and clear and simple lines. Pre-Raphaelitism was created out of these ideas, a new style which was against the “Antique School”, and insisting in its inspiration to the fifteenth-century Italian art and for its execution to nature in all its minutest detail.                                                                                                      (1973, 31)       

Millais was influenced by Ruskin’s view of an artist that "… go to nature in all singleness, rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing", and it was again Ruskin that defended Millai; and the Pre-Raphaelite painters by writing some letters to The Times, and tried to change the public’s view. But, in 1854, Millais was chosen as an Associate in the Royal Academy, Hunt left to the Middle East, and there was almost a breakup in Pre-Raphaelite, which concerned Rossetti.

Millais’s first essay in Pre-Raphaelitism appeared in the Academy in 1849 then in 1850, Millais another painting Christ in the house of his Parents, revealed their secret and showed a kind of opposition and revolt, and in 1851 this painter showed his Pre-Raphaelite morality subject, by his painting The Woodsman’s Daughter and then Mariana, which was based on Tennyson’s poem.                                                    (1979, 31)

Dr. Fredemann explained about the Pre-Raphaelite that:

 " …the techniques and artistic decisions of the P.R.B. painters
were not based solely on their desire to break from artistic conventions.
John Ruskin, an influential public advocate of the movement who had
written the first favorable review of the P.R.B. in 1849,  had already had an impact on their production. Holman Hunt (who argued that the Pre-
Raphaelite Movement owed its best ideas to himself) had been an avid
reader of Ruskin before his entrance into the Academy. He took from
Ruskin. and disseminated to the rest of the P.R.B., the idea of sincerity in
art, and an attention to nature and detail as can be seen in Christ in the
House of his Parents. This painting came under attack by critics after it
appeared beside Hunt’s A Converted Family in the 1850 Royal Academy
exhibit. Charles Dickens loathed the painting for its attention to detail, truth to nature, and treatment of the religious subject, complaining in Household Words that the figure of the young Christ was "a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed-gown…"  

   (1972, 87)                                                                                                                   

In general, the main qualities of Pre-Raphaelite can be summarized in three ways. Firstly, they are bright, truth to nature, color. Secondly, lack of grace in composition, and thirdly, they usually contain different subject like religion or mediaeval tales4.


Mariana in a velvet cloth was painted according to Tennyson’s poem Mariana.  It was about a young woman who was abandoned by her lover. In his beautiful painting Millais had shown the figure of a young woman who was stretching her body in an idle way while she was looking through the window.

In the picture we can see the picture of the angle, Mary, and also the figure of a soldier with his helmet and sword in the window, her make up table, yellow and green leaves, and a mouse passing behind her.

 Although, Millais did not describe the poem line by line, he had successfully drawn a picture based on the song which would show the main theme in the picture. The young woman’s face might suggest the sadness of her condition. Also, the way she was standing could signify her tiredness and disappointment. Besides, the environment was shown religious and we could find out about this by considering the picture of the angle and the virgin Mary, which might indicate the purity and virginity of Mariana. The autumn leaves also might signify the separation of Mariana of her lover and deepen the gloomy setting of the picture. However, the picture that Millais presented seemed to be true to the song, faithful to the poet, and to the point. Also, he referred to the nature through the leaves of the tree. To understand the painting better I would like to give more explanations by indicating others’ views.

A writer called Spielmann describes the mouse of the picture beautifully: 

"The curious twist that the mouse gives to its body, the strange and stiff-suppleness of its tail, and the intelligence in its bead like eyes, are reproduced with a high skill.”(1898,67)                                                                                                                              

Also, Jeffrey Millais stated, Mariana was a delicate composition and showed his careful and keen eye for dramatic gesture and telling details and so contained all Pre-Raphaelite qualities.                                                                                                        (1979, 32)

John Ruskin pronounced on Millais’s Mariana (1850-1851) in The Three Colors of Pre-Raphaelitism (1878), a lecture in which Millais was described as the best painter, but also classified as the sole member of uneducated branch of Pre-Raphaelitism.

Millais subordinated overt literariness to realism, doing extremely well in what Ruskin calls his physical power…and intense veracity of direct realization to the eye.

For Mariana, however, the Oxford setting was entirely appropriate because it’ provided Millais with an authentic Gothic environment in which to evoke the Gothic mood of the texts he was illustrating, thereby affording him the opportunity of successfully combining realism with literariness.

Millais’s frivolous view towards the spectacle of the Catholic religion exemplified the weak-minded English response to it, which worried Ruskin. Faced with the unfaithful threat posed by Mariana, Ruskin tried to counteract it publicly with rhetoric and in his Times letters he announced: "I am glad to see Mr. Millais’s lady in blue is heartily tired of her painted window and idolatrous toilet table.” And so he implied Mariana’s spiritual disappointment with her idolatrous artifacts while completely avoiding the obvious implication of her sexual frustration. For, Mariana’s evident tiredness was not simply a response to the window’s religious connotations, but her reaction to it was as a visible reminder of the absence of her lover Angelo, the dishonest Viennese Deputy in Measure for Measure, who abandoned Mariana when her gift was lost at sea.

The erotic suggestions of the painting which Ruskin ignored were made clear by George MacBeth7  who explained:

"the sensuous twist given to Mariana’s body as she drowsily inclines her head-not, however, to look out for her absent lover, but to appraise the forward young angel making two-finger sign of sexual invitation before the very eye in the Gothic window pane…. The boy in the window is, of course, the Archangel Gabriel, come to approach Mary with the news of her forthcoming sacred impregnation. The meeting of his eyes, not with those of the Virgin in the window, but with the hotter, more livingly lustful eyes of the girl in the room, pronounces the preliminary sexual arousal of a secular Annunciation."

In his post-Freudian enthusiasm to unravel the erotic implications of Mariana, Macbeth ignores to make the most element art piece of deduction: the angel in the window is synonymous with the absent lover, Angelo. Millais’s Annunciation scene makes use of a simple Shakespearean pun on the words Angel and Mary and their worldly counterparts Angelo and Mariana.

In Millais’s Annunciation scene Angelo appears in costume of the good angel to the Virgin, although as Mac Beth indicates his gaze is not fixed on her but on Mariana.

Mark Girouard88 noted that:

In (1844-45) Milla is had put together a manuscript book, Sketches of Armor, elaborately illustrated with drawings made in the Tower of London armory. And, the armorial device surmounting the snowdrop shield comprises of a closed helmet surmounted by a mailed arm with a warrior like fist brandishing a lance. The effect of this heraldic configuration is to make the drooping, virginal flower appear to cower beneath a threatened armed figure which looks particularly devilish and indeed phallic, with his devil’s horn protruding from its helmet. Finally, the aggressive downward thrust of the lance appears to be aimed at the head of the Virgin, so that the male symbol appears to be simultaneously threatening her floral emblem of purity…

The pressure in Mariana is weighing up with menacing intent by mailed arm in bend sinister, a sign of ill-omen suggestive of the evil nature of Mariana’s former engaged. And thus, Morris’s9[7]King Arthur’s Tomb, Genevieve’s hostile heraldic description of Lancelot might make clear the negative connotations the Pre-Raphaelites sometimes associated with him, connotations similar to those evoked by Mariana’s heraldic Imagery.

                   Banner of Arthur-with black-blended shield…

                   Sinister-wise across the fair gold ground!

                   Here let me tell you what a knight you are,

                   O, sword and shield of Arthur! You are found

                   A crooked sword, I think, that leaves a scar…                                          


So, Millais’s closed helmet could intensify the sinister effect, seeming in half-profile to be looking towards the angel and the Virgin, in a threatening gothic manner. The threatening appearance of this armorial figure whose motto informed the viewer was that in heaven there was rest 10.

Also, by looking at the picture carefully, we might notice a verbal similarity between the names Mary and Mariana, and that both of the virgins were threatened by Angelo who was Mariana’s lover, and also it was Mariana who saw the image of her future husband, Angelo, the angle, in the window.

The narrative function of Millais’s windows is signified by the presence of the darkened triptych in the back (67-68) ground whose tripartite pictorial form they match. These painted windows recall and indicate events in the literary texts to which they suggest. Millais’s windows, however, with their double painted and transparent levels, get a comparable effect of simultaneously of vision and evoke feverish presences, without compromising their integrity as real features of rhetoric. Millais makes a Gothic environment in which the supernatural can be shown in a real way and understood in terms of the psychology of the Victorian heroine, whose abandonment by her lover results in her obsession with him and in clear illusion of his presence. This is the psychology produced in Tennyson’s Mariana poem, and it is indicated by Millais by his introduction of the symbolic snowdrop11.

Also, another critic called Sussman believed that:

Millais introduces a complex of Christian iconography not present in Tennyson’s text, in particular the annunciation in the stained glass window and household altar indicates through the reversal of sacred meaning, that Mariana is imprisoned by the idea of female chastity.

And so, in the Tennyson’s persistence to Mariana his Mediterranean heroine’s mirror allows her to put on top her own image after virgin in a corrupt combination of autoeroticism and Mariolatry:

Thus, instead of superimposing her mirrored image upon Mary’s as Tennyson’s Southern Mariana did, Millais’s Mariana identified with her namesake, the virgin in the window who was her mirror image.

 But, she also presented an image of perfect, satisfied womanhood which reflected unfavorably on Mariana who was as Sussman said, imprisoned by the idea of female chastity. Mariana was shut behind her windows which not only reflected her condition but also acted as a psychological moat. There was a symbolic moat outside Mariana’s window, but the one which controled the painting was the one found at the end of Mariana:                                                                                                                     (68-69)

All day within the dreamy house.

 The doors upon their hinges creaked;

 The blue fly sung in the pane; the mouse

 Behind the moldering wainscot shrieked,

 Or from the crevice peered about,

 Her sense; but most she loathed the hour

 When the thick-moted sunbeam lay

 Athwart the chambers, and the day

                                  Was sloping towards his western bower                    (61-80)

According to his son, Millais particularly described the last four of these lines, although his inclusion of the mouse and the old glimmering face of Angelo indicated that both of the final stanzas provided key images for Mariana. But it was this stanza when the thick-mote sunbeam lay / Athwart Mariana’s chambers which particularly attracted Millais, and the successful ward in this image was thick-moted.

 The only thing imprisoning Mariana is a thick-moted sunbeam, a fact we only discover at the end of the poem, and one which shifts it from the realm of objective landscape to the inner world of Mariana’s disturbed mind. Also, the stained glass is the transparent mote behind which Mariana is trapped, and from which she turns away her look wearily and tiredly.

Millais further increases the sadness of Mariana’s environment by introducing the autumn leaves which have entered her room through the closed windows and threatened to overcome and destroy her needlework.

Regarding her figure, Ruskin noted on Mariana Romanticism and yet idleness that:

The picture has always been a precious memory to me, but if the painter had painted Mariana at work in an unmoated grange instead of idle in a moated one, it had been more to the purpose-whether of art or life.

Also, he believed that Mariana was the representative picture of its generation because it was the best symbol of the mud-moted nineteenth century.

 Parker another critic pointed out that: incarceration, the slow passage of time, and the needlework as compensation for male absence- appear in Tennyson’s poem Mariana and motivated Millais’s Painting Mariana.


 Lorenzo and Isabella known as Isabella were based on Keats’s poetical paraphrase of Boccaccios’s story. It is about a young unmarried woman who fell in love with a young man called Lorenzo. Later, when their brothers were aware, they lured Lorenzo from the house and killed him buried him in the jungle and hided the truth from their sister. Isabella waited for him for a long time but he did not hear from him till one night she saw him in the dream, and knew that he was murdered. She then found his dead body, took the head and put it in a pot and covered with the basil plant. But, because of her concern for the pot, her brothers stole it and found the head.

 Millais was especially concerned about the moment when Isabella’s brothers found out about her secret love, while Keats referred to it very briefly. He only said that:

                                                                      Found by many signs

 What love Lorenzo for their sister had

 And how she loved him, too.

 One of the signs was mentioned early;

 They could not sit at meals but feel how well

 It soothed each to be the other by.

 And so, Millais chose the dinner table for this picture, and completed it with the servant who was Lorenzo and the family dog which was lying alongside Isabella. The young lovers were gazing each other in a way that revealed their love, and the two brothers were watching them smiling or kicking the dog, which showed their anger of them

 In his painting Millais was careful about the cloth, facial _ expression and gestures to show human nature as they were regardless of time and place. They would be eating, drinking, talking, and waving their arms.

 Spielmann explained in his book that the red orange in the plate which was
passed to Isabella by Lorenzo was the symbol of death, because the one of the brothers
was cracking a nut as if he liked to crack Lorenzo’s head, and was kicking the dog that
his sister liked. The other brother was watching them through his wine glass with a
deceitful smile and the third watched with anger, too. In the other side a nurse, an aged
dame was observing the anger of the eldest and the money bag. The writer also added
that the picture had an excellence of color, fine execution, and extraordinary finish which
attained its perfection in the head of Isabella.                                                    (1898, 84)        

 Fleming believed that Millais’s Isabella was truly remarkable because of the vitality of the scene, the directness of the story, the dramatic interest, and the individualized, expressive portraits, and the meticulous details. With this painting, Millais tried to show the spirit of the Anglo-Italian renaissance and also the Gothic style.                                                                                                                  (1898, 49)

A.L. Baldry concerning the painting added:

This picture, Lorenzo and Isabella with it amazing care in the rendering of textures and
surfaces, its minute finish, its delicate color, and its brilliancy of illumination, is
uncompromising in its realism, and extraordinarily patient in its representation of the
selected material.                                                                                                     (1899, 40)

  Millais’s Lorenzo and Isabella (1849) with its realistic portraits of the artist’s
friends were considered to be a big joke by the public.                                 (1898, 26)

 While beautiful and sentimental, medieval spirituality is obviously lacking in Pre-Raphaelite depictions of sacred subjects. A common devotional image during the later middle Ages was the Annunciation. The Virgin Mary is usually shown in prayer as she receives the Archangel Gabriel who announces the Immaculate Conception.

 The Pre-Raphaelites began painting on a wet, white ground in order to produce outstanding colors that passed through the entire canvas. Many of their paintings, such as Millais’s Isabella of 1849, broke from the prevalent pyramid or triangular placement of figures which draws the attention to a central figure.

 In viewing Millais’s painting, the eye follows a shaking path down one row of profiles and up another even uneven one, then travels across the painting following the horizontal line created by the man’s leg which awkwardly kicks the dog whose head rests on Isabella’s lap. Only after following this circuitous path does the viewer come to focus on Isabella and Lorenzo. This painting also exhibits another element of the Pre-Raphaelite break with Academy conventions, the distorted or flattened perspective characteristic of Dante Rossetti’s paintings, notably Ecce Ancilla Domini (March 1850) (Exhibited at the Free Exhibition in April 1850.)


 Two emotions dominate Keats’s ‘Isabella’ – the love of the young couple for each other, and the hatred of Isabella’s family. Millais concentrated on these two emotions and used gesture and symbolism to bring out their importance.

In the foreground of the picture, Isabella’s brother sits curved over the table with his foot extended to kick a dog that affectionately nestles at his mistress’s knee. The sensitivity of this animal’s face is in marked contrast to the bared teeth and expression of his attacker, who, while brutally kicking, is at the same time absorbed cracking a nut. His tightened fists and the crushed shells spread on the table before him betray the savagery with which he gives up himself to this labor. It is not difficult to see him as the main person who will eventually kill Lorenzo.

 The expressions on the faces of the rest of the family are not brutal, but by their exaggeratedly straight positions, they suggest a certain self-satisfied satisfaction with their group.

 The figure who is on the left hand side of the table and who holds a glass in front of him is not merely looking at his wine, but also watching out of the corner of his eye at the lovers opposite. He has not missed the expression of burning love in the eyes of Lorenzo, nor the self- restraining look on the face of Isabella. This tension between the lovers and the family is further complicated by the use of more obvious symbols. On the back of a chair on the left hand side of the picture sits a hawk eating the white feather of a dove, a traditional symbol of peace. This indicates the imminent violence.

 On the table there is spilled salt, symbolic of the blood which will later be spilled. The shadow of the arm of the foremost brother is cast across this salt, thus linking him directly with the future bloodshed.

 In contrast to these indicators of violence, Lorenzo offers a blood orange, a symbol of passion and excitement, to Isabella.

 Decorated around, behind Isabella’s head are passion flowers, indicative of her love for Lorenzo, while above Lorenzo’s head are roses, also symbolic of love. These are colored white to indicate the purity of Lorenzo’s affections.

 Millais has also used the archway and curve behind the lovers to link their figures together. Just as Keats’s poetry often relied upon a rich and detailed gathering of images, so too is Millais’s painting rich in detail

 Through his paintings Millais attacked those who considered Nature as something common an ordinary and also as something not suitable for the imaginative mind. Although, he was not sure about his new attitude towards his new style and thought in painting, he was so determined. He was so determined that he could attract the attention of the public and the art-lovers. He was direct, honest and full of energy. What he painted was in fact his inner self and quality. Also, the simplicity of his art was because he did not want to be involved with side issues. As a matter of fact, he did not form his imagination based on abstraction as dreams and fancies, but fact. He observed the ordinary, every day life. He did not imagine but painted realities in a way that attracted attention.

 In describing the qualities of his paintings, Ruskin said:

 "…he sees every thing, small and large, with almost the same clearness;
mountains and grasshoppers alike; the leaves on the branches; the veins in the pebbles,
the bubbles in the stream…"                                                                
(1899,77)                                                                                                  Yet, it could not be told that his paintings of Isabella and Mariana were a mere imitation, because he chose his topic based on those poems. In fact, his painting based on Tennyson’s poem showed his power of thought and his careful and deep insight into the poem. He pictured the poet’s mind and his words with his power and exactness.

Again, Baldry added:

 The illustrations give us nothing that is not already enshrined in the text, nor do they hint
at any novel or unexpected reading of its hidden meanings; they may be said to make it
visible, and to put the poetic imagery into a tangible form…it was this sense of
adaptation, and this capacity for assimilating knowledge, that made Tennyson’s poem
(1899, 92)

He gave to the art and his country a new vitality and spirit. His paintings displayed a kind of power, force, expression, ability, exactness, and brilliancy which are rare and remarkable.

G.H. Fleming believed that if Millais followed Tennyson’s poem line by line, his painting could seem ridiculous.                                                          

In his opinion, the artist’s Isabella was far better than anything Keats ever did.                                                                                        

  (1998, 67-67)


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Fredemann, William. The Germ: A Magazine. Pre-Raphaelite Victorian Poetry.  

London, 1972.

Millais. Geoffrey. Sir John Everett Millais. Wisbech: Balding and Mansell Ltd., 1979.

Fleming, G. H. John Everett Millais, A Bibliography. London, 1998.

Leng, Andrew. Litarary Painting. The university of Singapore, 1998