Isabella and the Pot of Basil

Isabella and the Pot of Basil (J. W. Alexander)


I took last Wednesday off of work to explore the two new exhibits at the Met: Ambroise Vollard (a Cezanne to Picasso extravaganza) and Americans in Paris. Both were a bit too showy for my tastes, but there are some heart-gladdening pieces in each.

I never tire of Cezanne and he felt happily familiar after so recently seeing the Cezanne in Provence exhibit. The Bonnards were especially interesting to me following Berger's comments on his bathing nudes which have so recently read. The Gauguins failed to impress--these were his showy pieces, after the spirituality had gone and all that was left was the mark of too much concern and effort.

The Americans in Paris exhibit was a little cluttered in my opinion, but well worth it for Madame X (the woman GLOWS) and for the above painting which I had seen before, but never with an appreciating eye. John White Alexander's Isabella and the Pot of Basil. There's a hint of de la Tour's Magdalene about her, but with the darkness of an Aubrey Beardsley character.

I had never encountered this story before so I did the customary research and found Boccaccio's version as well as Keats.' Following are some excerpts from Isabella and the Pot of Basil

[Young lovers Isabella and Lorenzo, Isabella's disapproving brothers, Lorenzo is murdered by them and Isabella convinced he has fled. Lorenzo's shade visits her]:

It was a vision.—In the drowsy gloom,
The dull of midnight, at her couch’s foot
Lorenzo stood, and wept: the forest tomb
Had marr’d his glossy hair which once could shoot
Lustre into the sun, and put cold doom
Upon his lips, and taken the soft lute
From his lorn voice, and past his loamed ears
Had made a miry channel for his tears.


Strange sound it was, when the pale shadow spake;
For there was striving, in its piteous tongue,
To speak as when on earth it was awake,
And Isabella on its music hung:
Languor there was in it, and tremulous shake,
As in a palsied Druid’s harp unstrung;
And through it moan’d a ghostly under-song,
Like hoarse night-gusts sepulchral briars among.

He tells her of his murder and where to find his body

Who hath not loiter’d in a green church-yard,
And let his spirit, like a demon-mole,
Work through the clayey soil and gravel hard,
To see skull, coffin’d bones, and funeral stole;
Pitying each form that hungry Death hath marr’d,
And filling it once more with human soul?
Ah! this is holiday to what was felt
When Isabella by Lorenzo knelt.

She then digs him up, cuts off his head, and stores it in an urn, over which she plants sweet basil

And so she ever fed it with thin tears,
Whence thick, and green, and beautiful it grew,
So that it smelt more balmy than its peers
Of Basil-tufts in Florence; for it drew
Nurture besides, and life, from human fears,
From the fast mouldering head there shut from view:
So that the jewel, safely casketed,
Came forth, and in perfumed leafits spread.

But the brothers are curious and they steal the pot away to discover how it could grow so lush. They find the head of Lorenzo, fear they will be caught and flee--the pot of basil destroyed.

Isabella ends in mourning:

And so she pined, and so she died forlorn,
Imploring for her Basil to the last.
No heart was there in Florence but did mourn
In pity of her love, so overcast.
And a sad ditty of this story born
From mouth to mouth through all the country pass’d:
Still is the burthen sung—“O cruelty,
“To steal my Basil-pot away from me!”