Isabella and the Pot of Basil

John White Alexander (American, 1856–1915)


192.09 x 91.76 cm (75 5/8 x 36 1/8 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Oil on canvas

On View

Robert P. and Carol T. Henderson Gallery (Gallery 228)





The enigmatic literary subjects of artists like ElihuVedder [06.2430], William Rimmer [56.119], and Thomas Wilmer Dewing [34.131] take on a gruesome flavor in this unusual work by John White Alexander. A native of Pittsburgh who trained as an artist in Munich, Alexander first established himself in New York as an illustrator and cartoonist. He also earned praise for his fashionable portraits [1980.659], many of them of writers and actors. In 1890 Alexander moved to Paris, where he met James Abbott McNeill Whistler [60.1158], who introduced him to many of the leading figures of the European Symbolist movement. These painters and writers were interested in dreams and the imagination, and elements of macabre fantasy often appear in their work. During the ten years he spent in Paris, Alexander experimented with decorative and decadent themes, often employing the slender, sinuous lines of the Art Nouveau style.
Isabella, or The Pot of Basil was a poem written in 1820 by the English poet John Keats, who borrowed his narrative from the Italian Renaissance poet Giovanni Boccaccio. Isabella was a Florentine merchant’s beautiful daughter whose ambitious brothers disapproved of her romance with the handsome but humbly born Lorenzo, their father’s business manager. The brothers murdered Lorenzo and told their sister that he had traveled abroad. The distraught Isabella began to decline, wasting away from grief and sadness. She saw the crime in a dream and then went to find her lover’s body in the forest. Taking Lorenzo’s head, she bathed it with her tears and finally hid it in a pot in which she planted sweet basil, a plant associated with lovers.

Alexander used theatrical effects to render this grim scene, isolating Isabella in a shallow niche and lighting her from below, as if she were an actor on a stage illuminated only with footlights. This eerie light, the cold monochromatic palette, and the sensuous curves of Isabella’s gown all draw the viewer’s eye to the loving attention Isabella gives the pot, which she gently caresses. Isabella seems lost in an erotic spectral trance, oblivious to the world and to observers. With his strange subject, Alexander created an extraordinary and mysterious image of love gone awry.

This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).


Lower left: John Alexander .97


1897 or 1898, sold by the artist to Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow (b. 1845 - d. 1921), Boston; 1898, gift of Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow to the MFA. (Accession Date: September 19, 1898)

Credit Line

Gift of Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow