La Belle Iseult is the only painting by William Morris that exists today. The subject of the painting is Tristram's lover Iseult, and it was painted around the same time that his first book of poetry, The Defence of Guenevere , was published. It is probably for this reason that the subject of this painting is often believed to be Guinevere (both date from 1858).
William Morris composed several sketches prior to executing La Belle Iseult. In addition, the painting is believed to be partly inspired by a mural he painted in the Oxford Union in 1957.
The model for the painting is Jane Burden, who married Morris the following year. The work reveals that Morris was not as accomplished in working with oils as his friend Rossetti, as Jane appears rather pale and stiff in this rendering. Morris, who was well aware of his shortcomings as a painter, wrote with charming humility on the canvas, "I cannot paint you, but I love you."
Like many of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings, La Belle Iseult depicts a romanticised vision of the Middle Ages. And while the figures appear a bit uninspired, the textures of textiles the painting are quite striking. This work was finished long before the advent of William Morris' decorating company, but the details evident in the painting, such as the wall, bed and floor coverings--not to mention the lovely pattern on Iseult's dress--all bear witness to Morris' unparalleled talents as a draughtsman and foreshadow his involement in textile design. You will also notice that the book on the nightstand has also been carefully designed.
I adore this work. While Rossetti was much better at capturing the sensuous qualities of Jane and his other models, I think Morris' painting does an incredible job of envisioning a creative, romantic space. It gives one quite the "scope for the imagination"--don't you think?
Source Consulted: The Essential William Morris by Ian Zaczek, p. 16
Photo courtesy of the Tate Gallery