'Isabella' was one of the first paintings made in the new Pre-Raphaelite style. It was begun shortly after the founding of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848, when Millais was only 19.
The harshly brilliant colour combined with sharp detail, deliberately unbalanced composition and self-consciously angularity and flatness were all controversial features of Pre-Raphaelitism. The movement was loosely inspired by painting methods from early Italian painting, from the time before Raphael.
The subject was taken from a poem by John Keats, itself based on a story by the 14th century Italian writer Boccaccio. It tells of the love between Isabella, the sister of wealthy Florentine merchants, and their poor, low-born apprentice Lorenzo. The jealous brothers murder Lorenzo, but his body is found by Isabella. She cut off the head and buried it in a pot of basil which she watered with her tears.
The ending is hinted at in this painting by the pot of herbs in the background. There are also many other signs of the coming violence and tragedy. One of the brothers is angrily cracking nuts. He also aims a kick at Isabella's dog, whilst his own sleeps beneath his chair. Dogs are often used as symbols of loyalty and fidelity in paintings. The lovers are sharing a blood orange, signifying the later spilling of Lorenzo's blood.