Not everything is as it seems.
They are a young couple. Her face is raised pleadingly to his, her hands struggle to tie a strip of white cloth around his arm. His face is gently resolute; even as he embraces her he is pulling away the white strip she is trying to tie. They stand in the middle of the painting, by a garden wall, plants and flowers behind them. The light is focused on her pleading face and on their hands. A broken flower lies at their feet.
It will not be long until their dreams are broken too. John Everett Millais was creating an image of lovers who would soon be separated by the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. On that day there was a terrible slaughter of French Protestants, the Huguenots, carried out in the name of the Catholic faith on the orders of Catherine de Medici. That strip of white cloth around his arm would have told the world that the wearer was a Catholic; not consenting to wear it meant that our young Huguenot was facing death.
Even not knowing about the conflict around them you can sense that there is trouble. Knowing makes it clear what that this painting is about more than love, it is about how religious and political division and the manipulation of fear and hatred touch that love with fear. It show us that instant before the lovers are caught up in the conflict in spite of themselves.
It also, and deliberately, says something about Millais himself. It reflects Millais sympathy for the Huguenot, and allows him to tell those around him that his sympathies lie with the young lovers, and by extension with the Protestants of France.
This was important because Millais had been much criticized for an earlier painting that viewers thought showed sympathy for the Catholic point of view. In staunchly Protestant England that was something that could have a very negative effect on a painter’s career and life.
So you can see that there is far more here than first meets the eye. Things are more than they seem, and there is more than one story behind this painting.