Bycatch from my Snark hunt:
This is not one of my Snark comparisons. It is about “seeing” things in paintings and illustrations. When I started my Snark hunt, I often wondered why people are afraid to tell what they see. John Everett Millais’ painting Lorenzo and Isabella (created: 1848–1849; present location: National Museums Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery; inspired by John Keats’ poem Isabella) could help us to explain the shyness of beholders if it comes to seeing ambiguous objects in images.
In November 2012 the Liverpool museums page said (but doesn’t say ist anymore):
[…] On the table there is spilled salt, symbolic of the blood which will later be spilled. The shadow of the arm of the foremost brother is cast across this salt, thus linking him directly with the future bloodshed. […]
Now, where is the bycatch from my Snark hunt? The meaning of that “shadow” is not really a secret anymore. The reproduction of Millais’ painting on top of this page shows a detail from the depiction of one of Lorenzo’s brothers where you see that the young Millais left quite visible traces when he re-positioned the elbow of that thug. Perhaps he needed more space for the shadow and the salt. Here is the bycatch: Instead of the shadow of the arm of the foremost brother being cast across the salt, the the salt is cast across the shadow! And what a strange shadow that is. The shadow covers the white table cloth, but miraculously does not cover the white salt.
In June 2013 I noticed that the “shadow of the arm” and all that has disappeared from the web page. Another page said:
[…] Elsewhere in the picture, murder is prefigured: another brother hold up a glass of blood-like wine; a hawk pecks at a white feather; salt, symbol of life, is spilt on the table; scenes of violence decorate the majolica plates; the pot of basil stands ready on the balcony to receive the murdered man’s head. […]
Carol Jacobi, Sugar, Salt and Curdled Milk: Millais and the Synthetic Subject, Tate Papers, no.18, Autumn 2012 (accessed: 2018-01-02):
[…] This essay looks at a pattern of sexual images ‘lost in the effort of reading’. Some, such as the phallic shadow projecting from the groin of the foreground figure in Lorenzo and Isabella 1848–9 […], appear to have been unseen, having attracted no mention in critical commentaries of the work. […] The salt cellar spilling its contents through the shadow on the white cloth in Lorenzo and Isabella, dispels doubts about whether such sexual connotations were ‘conscious’. […]
It’s over the shadow, not through the shadow. By drawing the impossible, Millais made it quite clear that this is no regular shadow.
In a 1848 draft there still was no such shadow:The hunting trophies at the wall (upper left side) didn’t make it into the painting. You can see a pig head, the fur of some animal and a blowing horn. The pig head perhaps inspired the pattern which the young Millais used for the wallpaper.
Millais’ Lorenzo and Isabella caused some noise in November 2012 on occasion of Tate’s Pre-Raphaelites exhibition. Only then the phallic symbol was mentioned openly by a museum. Seemingly for more than 160 years after Millais drew the painting nobody wrote about it.