There are more dramatic images I could have chosen to represent Holman-Hunt, The Scapegoat, for example or The Hireling Shepherd, but this painting, Isabella and the Pot of Basil , has a personal connection for me because I’ve been visiting the original in the Delaware Art Museum since I was an adolescent.
The painting was personal for Holman-Hunt in a very different way. It was based on portraits of his first wife and painted shortly after her death. The rather macabre story it depicts is from a Renaissance poem in which Isabella discovers the body of Lorenzo, who her brothers have murdered because they want her to marry another. She severs his head and buries it in a pot of basil which she waters with her tears. Holman-Hunt also painted a larger version of the same composition, which is in the Laing Gallery in Newcastle, England.
The original painting is small (15×23″, 38x58cm) and has a gem-like quality when standing in front of it. It is rich with the extraordinary detail and luminescent color that make the Pre-Raphaelite works so appealing to many (except, of course, to art critics, who seem immune to visual pleasure). You can literally spend hours working your eye through Holman-Hunt’s paintings, luxuriating in the visual feast of his attention to the texture and color of physical objects.
The composition of this work seems oddly off-kilter, but Holman-Hunt was such a masterful painter that I have to assume that is intentional. I find myself leaning into the pot of Basil with isabella and perhaps feeling additionally unsettled as if sharing her disorienting grief.
Even though Holman-Hunt professed social and religious views that valued purity and piety and often portrayed religious subjects, his paintings seem to revel in the sensuality of the physical world; you want to run your hand across the polished wood, feel the embroidered fabrics with your fingers, smell the plants and be dazzled by the light that bathes objects in glowing warmth.
Holman-Hunt, along with Dante Gabriel Rosetti and John Everett Millais, who he met while they were students at the Royal Academy, was a founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The Pre-Raphaelites were a group of English painters and writers who rejected the idealized academic painting of the day, as exemplified by Sir Joshua Reynolds, then head of the Royal Academy, and embraced a return to the rich color and detail of the early Renaissance (before Raphael and his contemporaries started their own kind of idealized painting).
They desired to be faithful to nature in their paintings an also infused them with romanticism, pulling their subject matter from Keats, Shakespeare and classical literature. They were aided by critic John Ruskin, one of the few art critics who actually seems to have made a contribution to the history of art, if only because he defended the Pre-Raphaelites against the harsh treatment they received from other critics (a practice that still seems necessary today.)