Tuesday, July 8, 2008

William Morris' La Belle Iseult


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

5 comments:

Melanie said...

Hi Margaret, hope you had a great time in Columbia. Was it all you hoped it would be after studying the place for so long?

Love this painting- Tate London. The painting in the pic is Rossetti's. I love that deep blue wallhanging. Jane Burden was the sister of a stablehand in one of the tiny courtyard pubs like the Turf Tavern that you can still visit in Oxford. She was a lot below William Morris in background, so it was a surprise that he married her.

I recall an interview I think she gave in her old age where she spoke of picking violets on the Iffley Road as a child, but she didn't like to talk of her humble origins. England was very classist but hopefully less so now.

Margaret said...

Colombia was amazing. It was also somewhat better than I had hoped, since I had been researching the drug industry!

Interesting about the review with Jane Burden!

I must say though, that the painting in the picture is DEFINITELY by Morris, not Rossetti. I can say this rather confidently!

skatej said...

Jane's figure in the painting looks like the midieval paintings I have seen,with the flat and pale features.
I love that Morris wrote "I cannot paint you but I love you".

Margaret said...

It does look quite Medieval! Critics disliked the flat features, but I think you're right--perhaps Morris did a better job of acheiving a medieval look than Rossetti did.

Morris' comment on the painting reveals how much he adored Jane. I find it rather endearing, and it's one reason why I have more sympathy for Morris than Rossetti when it comes to the whole Rossetti-Morris-Burden love triangle.

Gillian L. said...

I think this is a lovely picture which I don't recall seeing every before. What a romantic comment, "I cannot paint you, but I love you." I love to read biographies and because of your blog William Morris now is on my "Must Read" list.

Gillian