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John Everett Millais Photo

John Everett Millais

British Painter

Born: June 8, 1829 - Southampton, United Kingdom
Died: August 13, 1896 - Kensington, United Kingdom
"...I have painted every touch in my head, as it were, long ago, and have now only to transfer it to canvas."
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John Everett Millais
"Man was not intended to live alone ... marriage is the best cure for that wretched lingering over one's work. I think I must feel more settled than you all. I would immensely like to see you all married like myself and anchored."
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John Everett Millais
"It is only since Watteau and Gainsborough that woman has won her right place in Art. The Dutch had no love for women, and the Italians were as bad. The women's pictures by Titian, Raphael, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, and Velasquez are magnificent as works of Art; but who would care to kiss such women? Watteau, Gainsborough, and Reynolds were needed to show us how to do justice to woman and to reflect her sweetness."
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John Everett Millais
"Man was not intended to live alone...marriage is the best cure for that wretched lingering over one's work. I think I must feel more settled than you all. I would immensely like to see you all married like myself and anchored."
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John Everett Millais
"It doesn't matter how beautifully a thing is painted, it is no good if it isn't right - it's got to come out... What does it matter how you do it? Paint it with a shovel if you can't get your effect any other way."
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John Everett Millais

Summary of John Everett Millais

Having emerged as a bone-fide child prodigy, Millais would embark on a career that saw him enjoy domestic and international fame in his own lifetime. As a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, he joined a tight-knit group of artists, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt, who rebelled against the prevailing norms in academic art. Considered by many to be the first avant-garde movement in British art, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood drew their inspiration from (pre-Raphaelite) artists such as Jan van Eyck and Albrecht Dürer and, like them, Millais looked directly to nature for inspiration. Known initially for an unprecedented attention to pictorial realism, Millais would develop a penchant for political works before, in later years, devoting himself exclusively to portraiture and Scottish landscapes. Millais is also recognized as the first Academy artist to expand his repertoire through newspaper illustration and reproductive prints. His brilliant career culminated in his election as President of the Royal Academy in 1896.


  • Millais's work as a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood offered the first meaningful challenge to the "predictable" art of the Academy and its preference for early Italian Renaissance and Classical art. His paintings were the work of a pious young man with an almost fetishistic attention to detail. His early worksThey showed a especial daring in the way his religious parables represented holy figures as ordinary people placed in ordinary natural surroundings.
  • Millais can take credit for helping legitimize the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as a serious movement and for raising its popularity and credibility amongst the public. He achieved this through a series of romantic paintings set against the backdrop of real political events. These historical works, delivered with his attention to detail, were also widely admired for the way in which he was able to capture the emotional state of his female protagonists.
  • In a move away from his strict adherence to realism, Millais would turn to the theme of the female in nature, expressed through a more decorative style. These canvases were seen very much as meditations on the idea of beauty and youth, and on the passages of time. Though they were not to everyone's taste (they drew the sting of the influential critic, and champion of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, John Ruskin for instance) they proved to be significant transitional works that saw Millais's influence start to widen by impacting directly on the Aesthetic movement.
  • For his mature works, Millais travelled to Scotland where he made a number of important landscapes. These pieces lacked his earlier eye for detail; the artist being intent rather on using his palette to explore a range of emotional effects. What distinguished Millais's works from others working in landscapes was the variety in his paintings which saw him produce images that ranged from high drama to quiet melancholy.
  • Running parallel to his landscape painting, Millais emerged as a highly accomplished portrait painter. On the one hand his "unfussy" adult portraits imbued his sitters, several of whom held high positions in public office, with a power and modesty that drew comparisons with the likes of Rembrandt and Velazquez. On the other, he produced several highly effective and sentimental portraits of young children which saw (though not to everyone's approval) the artist break new ground in terms of the cross-over between fine art and mass reproduction.

Biography of John Everett Millais

John Everett Millais Life and Legacy

Having already caused an uproar within the British art establishment with his paintings, Millais, with Effie Gray and John Ruskin, scandalized Victorian society as players in one of the greatest love triangles in the history of art.

Important Art by John Everett Millais

Christ in the House of His Parents (The Carpenter's Shop) (1849-50)

Millais here depicts a young Christ just after his hand has been accidentally impaled by a nail. His father, Joseph, is in anxious close attendance, leaning over his workshop table, while, Mary, his mother, kneels beside him in an attempt to provide comfort. His grandmother, Anne, still holds the pliers she has used to remove the nail, while Christ's cousin, John the Baptist, brings him a dish of water as a balm for his wound. Rich in symbolism, the art historian Jason Rosenfeld identifies the "objects that refer to events in the Passion of Christ: carpentry tools that will later be used to make his crucifix on the back wall; the cut on his palm that has dripped blood on to his left foot and alludes to the stigmata, his wounds on the cross; the dove perched on a ladder, reflecting the Holy Spirit; the water carried by the young John the Baptist on the right, referring to his role in the story; and even the kneeling pose of the Virgin, which foreshadows her prostrate form at the foot of the cross".

Millais's almost obsessive attention to detail was a signifying feature of the Pre-Raphaelite style. Indeed, Pre-Raphaelitism insisted on a fidelity to fine detail, even at the risk of showing ugliness and there were many who criticized the movement. The art historian John Rothenstein noted for instance that Millais's "remarkable picture gave particular offence for being too literal [a] representation of a sacred subject, for representing the Holy Family as real people instead of pious myth, for treating them in the words of The Athenaeum, 'with a circumstantial Art language from which we recoil with loathing and disgust'". Rothenstein cited Charles Dickens no less, who, in an open address to Millais in a June 1850 issue of Household Words, complained that "wherever it is possible to express ugliness of feature, limb, or attitude, you have it expressed" and that the painting "would stand out from the rest of the company as a monster in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin shop in England".

Ophelia (1851-52)

Ophelia (1851-52)

Millais's most iconic work, and probably the most famous of all the early Pre-Raphaelite paintings, Ophelia depicts the moment from Shakespeare's Hamlet when, driven insane by grief after her father's murder, Hamlet's lover drowns herself in a stream. She is shown floating on her back in the murky water with arms outstretched; her haunting facial expression emphasized against the rich natural tones of her natural surroundings. The painting demonstrates Millais's ability to apply paint with a deftness of touch that captures light, textures, and natural details with a rare precision. But the painting of Ophelia was a far from happy experience for the painter. He worked eleven-hour days on the Hogsmill river near Ewell in preparing the setting for Ophelia, and in a letter to the wife of Thomas Combe, complained:

"My martyrdom is more trying than any I have hitherto experienced. The flies of Surrey are more muscular, and have a still greater propensity for probing human flesh ... I am threatened with a notice to appear before a magistrate for trespassing in a field and destroying the hay ... am also in danger of being blown by the wind into the water, and becoming intimate with the feelings of Ophelia when that Lady sank to muddy death, together with the (less likely) total disappearance, through the voracity of the flies ... Certainly the painting of a picture under such circumstances would be a greater punishment to a murderer than hanging".

The model for Ophelia was a young woman named Elizabeth Siddal and it is her story that effectively renders Ophelia the tale of two - one fictional, one real - tragic heroines. Painting her over a period of four months, Siddal was required to lay in a bathtub of warm water for hours at a time. During one sitting the under-tub heating failed leaving Siddal with a serious fever. Her father became so angry at his daughter's mistreatment that he threatened Millais with legal action if he did not agree to cover Elizabeth's medical expenses (which he did). But her presence in this painting is made truly poignant once one learns of her relationship with a third protagonist: Millais's colleague Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Siddal had been Rossetti's muse for several years before the couple married in 1860. However, their relationship was soured by Rossetti's constant philandering and the sickly Siddal's ongoing bouts of melancholy and ill health. Already addicted to opium, she suffered postpartum depression following the still-birth of the couple's daughter in 1862, and died several days later from an overdose of laudanum. It is not known if the overdose was accidental or intentional.

A Huguenot, on St Bartholomew's Day, Refusing to Shield Himself from Danger by Wearing the Roman Catholic Badge (1851-52)

A Huguenot, on St Bartholomew's Day, Refusing to Shield Himself from Danger by Wearing the Roman Catholic Badge (1851-52)

A Huguenot features two lovers locked in an embrace set behind a garden wall and surrounded by foliage. The young woman is attempting to tie a white band around her lover's left arm but he is preventing her with his right hand as he cradles her head with his left.

The work, considered a masterpiece of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood movement, is a deeply romantic painting set against the backdrop of a real historical event; the slaughter of 3,000 Protestant Huguenots by the Roman Catholics on August 24, 1572. Here the young woman, fearing for the safety of her love, is trying, unsuccessfully, to convince him to wear the white arm band that would indicate he was Catholic and spare him his inevitable fate. Millais described this courage on the young man's part stating, "but he, holding his faith above his greatest worldly love, will be softly preventing her". The painting was enthusiastically received and helped to place the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood among the legitimate movements in British art history. In describing its impact in 1853, art critic William Michael Rosetti wrote, "mainly owing to Millais's picture [the movement] had practically triumphed - issuing from the dust and smother of four years' groping surprise on the part of critics and public, taking the form mostly of thick-and-thin vituperation".

Influences and Connections

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Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Anthony Todd

"John Everett Millais Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Anthony Todd
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First published on 02 Aug 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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