Important Art by John Everett Millais
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".
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 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".