Happy Hallowe’en! And Happy Birthday Keats!

Hallowe’en is definitely my favorite holiday.  It’s a particularly special time for me and my children, so when I wish you a ‘Happy Hallowe’en’ it is a heartfelt sentiment on my part and I wish you and yours a blessed day and a beautiful Autumn.

Hallowe’en is also the birth date of John Keats, a favorite poet of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  So I thought I’d share with you the Keats-inspired painting that I love the most:  Isabella and the Pot of Basil by William Holman Hunt. (From an archived post)


I had seen this painting several times in books and online, but when I saw it in person I was blown away. The painting is quite large, measuring 73.5 x 45.5 inches. Due to its size, the painting draws you in, completely dominating the room and immersing you in every detail.

The painting illustrates a poem by John Keats: Isabella, or, the Pot of Basil. In it, Isabella and Lorenzo fall in love. Her brothers kill Lorenzo. After searching for and finding his body, Isabella buries his head under a plant of Basil. Romantic, no?

William Holman Hunt used his wife Fanny as the model. He wanted to paint Isabella thin and wan with grief, but being a Pre-Raphaelite he believed in painting “truth to nature”. If Fanny was to portay Isabella, he had to paint her as she was. She was pregnant at the time and gave birth to their son in October 1866. Sadly, Fanny died a few months later in December.

I love this painting for its mixture of beauty and grief. Isabella can never be repulsed by her close proximity to Lorenzo’s buried head. No, she embraces his flower pot/casket, with her hair draping over it like a shroud mixing in with the soil and the plant. And notice how the Basil plant flourishes, growing grandly – due to the fertilization, are we meant to believe? And the horrible irony of it all is that in this picture of death, a life was growing inside the beautiful model. The Lion King has nothing on this circle of life.

8 thoughts on “Happy Hallowe’en! And Happy Birthday Keats!”

  1. Happy Halloween, Stephanie! Thank you for this interesting and insightful post. I was familiar with the painting, and the title of the poem, but had not been aware of the history behind the painting or the full content of the poem. Perfectly eerie and poignant for today’s occasion!

  2. This is one of the first PRB paintings that I fell in love with. We used to have a pretty big poster of this in the English dept. corridors at college, but I doubt that even compares to its original dimensions! I used to walk past it and comment /every damn time/ that I wanted the inlaid furniture.

    Also, I forgot about Keats’ birthday. I am a horrible, horrible disappointment to both modern Romanticism and Goth and will write three poems about the transience of life using natural metaphors as penance 😛

  3. Isabella is in my local gallery – I visit her weekly, at least! Unfortunately she’s away in London at the moment. I miss her dreadfully – I console myself with sipping a mocha under the Burne-Jones stained glass window in the coffee shop!

  4. I love this painting too. Isabella belongs in the Laing art gallery in Newcastle. I don’t live far from there and I always love to go and see her….well visit her. It is a beautiful painting, inspiring me when I was younger to paint my self. There is so much detail within that I can never get tired of looking at her.


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