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.
The Life of John Everett Millais
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)
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".
Oil on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
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.
Oil on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
A Huguenot, on St Bartholomew's Day, Refusing to Shield Himself from Danger by Wearing the Roman Catholic Badge
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".
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
The Order of Release, 1746
Millais sometimes used his paintings to make political statements and to explore historical themes. Rendered in fine picture detail, vivid colors and a striking tonalities, The Order of Release tells the story of a Jacobite soldier who, having been taken prisoner during a rebellion against the British loyalists, has been released after their defeat at the Battle of Culloden in April of 1746. A British soldier depicted on the left of the canvas looks on as the prisoner falls into the arms of his wife who also holds their young son. A pet dog reaches up to greet his returning master pawing at his injured right arm which is supported with a sling.
Besides focusing on the human (rather than heroic) aspect to the rebellion, this work is important because it marks the first time Millais painted his future wife Effie. At this time she was unhappily married to his friend, the influential art critic John Ruskin. According to art historian Jason Rosenfeld, Effie was overjoyed to be used for the wife in this painting writing to her mother, "that she was quite thrilled that Millais had captured her likeness absolutely, and that people would recognize her on the Academy walls come May". Indeed, Frances Fowle, writing on behalf of the Tate Museum, explained that "when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1853 it proved so popular that a policeman had to be installed in front of the picture to move the spectators on".
Of special note here is the way that Millais was able to imbue his female figures with an air of mystery. According to Rosenfeld, the soldier's wife is one of many examples in the artist's work in which "the emotional states of these women do not allow them to engage fully, or at least actively, with their environment. It is as if the artist is making a study of female psychology under duress, of varying forms of trance [...] Millais allowed the narrative to remain open. How did this woman secure her husband's release from imprisonment? In the inky bleakness of this jail, in the picture's quiet, its reserve, its cold meditative air, Millais conveyed great weight and momentousness".
Oil on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
A group of four girls dominate the foreground of John Everett Millais's Autumn Leaves. Positioned around a pile of leaves; one girl holds an empty basket, another is adding a handful of leaves to the pile, and another holds a rake. Only the youngest seems delinquent in her chores as she holds an apple from which she has taken a bite. While two of the girls are preoccupied with their environment, the two girls on the left of the frame stare directly out at the viewer. This work was painted shortly after Millais's return from his honeymoon and includes two of his wife Effie's sisters, Alice and Sophie, here depicted in dark green dresses.
Millais had a good relationship with Effie's family and this painting marks the beginning of a long practice of including his two sisters-in-law in his work. It also explores a theme that he would continue throughout his career, that of the passing of time; which is seen here not only in the autumn season with its falling leaves but also in the almost indiscernible figure of a man holding a scythe in the shadowy background. In describing this new theme, Jason Rosenfeld described it as "Millais's finest early foray into a theme that would obsess him, twinned with the recurrent concept of morality [...] It is nostalgia, and it is something that connoted both the personal and the modern in his art [...] In Autumn Leaves, Millais dealt with the melancholy associated with life's inevitable progression".
That he achieves this exploration through vivid imagery and beautifully rendered figures is typical of his artistic style. Of the sense of sentimentality this painting evoked, Millais stated, "Is there any sensation more delicious than that awakened by the odour of burning leaves? To me nothing brings back sweeter memories of the days that are gone; it is the incense offered by departing summer to the sky, and it brings one a happy conviction that Time puts a peaceful seal on all that was gone".
Oil on canvas - Collection of Manchester City Art Gallery, Manchester, United Kingdom
The theme of females in nature, a recurring feature of Millais's later work, is the subject of Spring in which eight girls of varying ages are relaxing in an orchard surrounded by blossoming apple trees. That they were earlier involved in another activity is made clear by the two baskets overflowing with flowers, but they are at the moment all engaged in various degrees of repose. One girl, pours water into a small bowl for another who reaches out to take it; while the most striking of figures, an older girl in a bright yellow dress lies on her back, arms outreached in front of her and head turned to gaze directly out at the viewer.
At first glance, the painting can be seen as a visual meditation on the beauty of youth. But there are two other issues which Millais is also addressing here. First, Millais is attempting to comment on the passing of time and the inevitability of one's own mortality here represented by the scythe resting behind the girls. Millais is also making reference to the burgeoning sexuality of the older girls, most notably the figure in the yellow dress who stares provocatively out at the viewer. The way Millais depicted her influenced the Aestheticism art movement. As Rosenfeld explains, "ultimately this figure is risqué, bearing an intensely powerful gaze. And in its 'relaxed moody dreaminess' Spring represents themes to be taken up in the Aesthetic movement. It is one of Millais's pictures of this period that is advanced in its thematics, its decorative unity, lack of a demonstrative literary subject and overall opulence of colour and emphasis on beauty".
Millais's move away from realism did not sit at all well with John Ruskin. The art critic (who could have been harbouring resentment at Millais's recent marriage to his former wife) was, in Rosenfeld's words, "merciless in his criticism of the nature in Spring [...] taking issue with what he saw as its artificiality and writing of 'this fierce and rigid orchard - this angry blooming (petals, as it were, of japanned brass)'".
Oil on canvas - Collection of Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, United Kingdom
Chill October captures the brooding landscape surrounding the Scottish village of Seggieden located near his wife's family's home in Perth. As the title denotes, the artist has captured the area in October, and so everything is rendered in rich autumnal hues of golds, browns and yellows. The crisp fall breeze is captured by the swaying trees located to right of the river which are leaning towards the left of canvas as a flock of birds circle above a gray, cloud-filled sky.
This is an important painting in Millais's oeuvre as it marks his return to the landscape genre. It was in fact the first of twenty-one Scottish landscapes he would create towards the end of his career. Millais was eager to return to the genre, writing to his wife in 1868, "I am very anxious to come out particularly strong next year in our new Exhibition rooms and I must try and paint an outdoor picture if I can". He worked with feverish energy but it would take two more years before he accomplished his goal.
Coming long after the expiration of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, his landscapes abandoned his fetishistic eye for detail in an effort to explore a greater range of nature's emotion effects. Indeed, Rosenfeld wrote that, "with this picture Millais established himself as the pre-eminent and most advanced interpreter of nature in British painting, and set the stage for the most impressive works of his later career". He added that "some are dramatic [and] some are melancholy" but that they are all "full of striking effects and atmosphere, and each is singularly varied, unlike the quite repetitive practices of the major dedicated landscapists of the late nineteenth century".
Oil on canvas - Collection of Lord Lloyd-Webber Collection
Hearts are Trumps: Portraits of Elizabeth, Diana, and Mary, Daughters of Walter Armstrong, Esq.
Hearts are Trumps features the three daughters of Millais's patron Walter Armstrong. We see here that the artist had not lost his keen eye for detail. This is most evident in the dresses of Elizabeth, Diana and Mary and also in background features such as wallpaper, a large potted plant and an ornate furniture piece/card table. Describing the painting, the Tate museum suggests that "the card game, and the title of the work, hint at competition over who would marry first. This was seen as matter of great important at the time for women of their social class. This work presents the social structures and expectations of the period as a game that these women have learnt to play skilfully".
The painting also makes reference to another earlier British master painter, Joshua Reynolds and his The Ladies Waldegrave (1780-81) which also featured three young ladies engaged in a similar setting. When comparing the works, one cannot help but see the contemporizing of the behaviors of young women in society that Millais was trying to make. According to art historian Jason Rosenfeld paintings featuring such girls were often made, "to cause a stir and elicit interest when exhibited in public. Reynolds's picture has recently been interpreted as consumed by modesty and purity [...] and like Millais's work, refers to marriageability, for the locked drawer plainly visible in the middle is a traditional symbol of female virginity [...] But the presence of] a flat more decorative card table in Millais's picture, and the keyhole on the drawer is very much empty, perhaps implying that these girls will have more of a role in choosing their mates than their counterparts of a century earlier".
This painting also represents the artist's modernization of portraiture painting that distinguished him from established masters of portraiture such as Reynolds. There is a heavier use of the brush and a thick impasto style employed here by Millais. This approach would define his portraits and would contribute to his high demand as a portrait artist during his later career.
Oil on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
The Right Hon. W. E. Gladstone M. P.
Millais was by now highly respected for his portraiture and received many commissions, although this portrait of the British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone was painted at the artist's own request. He is rendered in side profile in a pensive pose befitting that of a political figure of his standing. Indeed, Gladstone's wife, Catherine, said of the portrait, "Mr. Gladstone was thinking at the time how terrible a sin would be committed if England was to go to war for the Turks". According to Rosenfeld, Millais's approach to portraiture, "forces a confrontation with the face and persona of the sitter, without distraction by ephemera. This turned out to be quite suitable for men such as Gladstone, who saw themselves as intellectuals who practiced politics, men of deep thought and compassion".
The intensity and humility with which Millais rendered his sitters was acknowledged by both the general public and the art establishment. In 1898 then Royal Academy president Edward Poynter praised the portrait of Gladstone as, "unrivalled since the days of Rembrandt and Velasquez in its rendering of the mind and the spirit of the man". The sitter himself was so pleased with the portrait that he and the artist became lifelong friends. It was Gladstone indeed who arranged for Millais to become a Baronet; the first in his profession to receive such an honor.
Oil on canvas - Collection of National Portrait Gallery, London
Millais's painting, which continued the tradition of Jean-Siméon Chardin's Soap Bubbles (1739) and Édouard Manet's Soap Bubbles (1867), is one of the many beautifully rendered portraits featuring children. The subject (the artist's own grandson) sits pensively looking up at a soap bubble that floats above his head. In his hands are the tools that have created such the wonderous novelty: a bowl of soapy water and a pipe. Millais often explored issues of mortality and the passing of time and here he employs the long-established technique of vanitas paintings in which certain objects such as hour glasses, time pieces, rotting fruit, and bubbles are intended to be symbols of one's own mortality.
While art critic Maev Kennedy has referred to the painting as "one of the most sentimental child portraits in art history", it generated a scandal which lasted long after the artist's passing. The painting was sold by Millais to the editor of the Illustrated London News who distributed copies of it with their Christmas edition in 1887. It was subsequently sold on to the Pears' Soap company who used the image as an advertisement after adding an image of their bar of soap to the work (placed at the child's feet). While Millais had worked as an illustrator, the mass reproduction of the work was seen by many as regressive step that sullied the status of fine art. According to curator Dr. Alison Smith, "there was such an outcry that Millais's son [later] insisted his father knew nothing about it - but of course we have the correspondence and we know he did, and raised no objection at all, provided the print was good enough".
Oil on canvas - Collection of Unilever PLC
Biography of John Everett Millais
Childhood and Education
The youngest of three siblings, John Everett Millais was born into a comfortable middle-class Military family. His father, John William Millais, was a keen "Sunday painter" and John, and his brother William, would become heirs to their father's love of art. Millais, who was home-schooled by his mother, Mary Emily Hodgkinson, enjoyed an idyllic childhood. Commenting on earlier biographical writings on Millais, the art historian Jason Rosenfeld observed that "there are many references to his early love of outdoor activities, whether it be fishing, hunting, walking, riding, playing cricket or swimming. This was to overcome a delicate constitution and a rail-thin figure, a physical characteristic often remarked upon by those who knew him before he was an adult".
Millais's prodigious talent for art was fully embraced by his parents. Their unblinking faith in their nine year old son's ability saw the entire family relocate to London in 1838 where he could begin to study art seriously. According to Rosenfeld, "this gamble was on the strength of juvenile drawings that he had made of militiamen in France and Jersey and of fanciful subjects, and productive lessons from a Paris-trained artist and illustrator".
Upon arrival in London, his mother presented her son to the president of the Royal Academy of Arts, Sir Martin Shee. Confronted with a nine-year-old boy, Shee quickly dismissed Mary by suggesting her son would be better served if he trained to sweep chimneys. She persisted, however, and once he saw examples of Millais's work he reversed his opinion. Millais was sent to begin his training at Henry Sass's Academy and was admitted on probation two years later to the Royal Academy. He became a full student in 1846, three years after receiving his first medal for distinction. His youth did not set him apart from his more mature fellows who were generally won over by his cheerful disposition and kind personality. According to Rosenfeld, indeed, "Millais became a favourite of the other pupils, lightly teased for his youth and diminutive size compared to the older students but generally adored".
Despite his fine training, Millais would tire of what he felt were the narrow practices of the Old Masters and the heavy emphasis the Academy placed on the excellence of Renaissance artists, including, and forward of, Raphael. In 1848 he joined a clandestine group of seven young artists made up of fellow Academy students: Dante Gabriel Rosetti, William Holman Hunt, James Collinson, William Michael Rosetti, Frederic George Stephens, and Thomas Woolner. The group would go by the name of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The Brotherhood strove for an exacting realism in paintings that drew thematic inspiration from religious, literary, and poetic sources, especially those dealing with the topic of love and death. For his part, Millais, painted many works in this style including one of his greatest masterpieces, Christ in the House of his Parents (The Carpenter's Shop) (1849-50) aged just 21.
Tracing a lineage back the works of fifteenth-century "primitives" such as Stefan Lochner and Fra Angelico, the art historian E. H. Gombrich noted that "the painters in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood [...] saw in them all the charm of simple devotion and a child-like heart" that was a derivation of "the longing of Victorian masters for innocence" in art. Gombrich argued that looking back to an "age of faith" could not compete thematically with the more progressive/contemporary style of French painters such as Delacroix and Courbet and was thus fated to be short-lived. But, as the art historian John Rothenstein noted, at the time of its inception the Brotherhood "was the most positive English expression of a widespread imaginative recoil from the fog-girt meanness of the outward aspect of the society brought into being by the Industrial Revolution, and from the listless but pretentious classicism, remotely derivative from the Renaissance, that stood for 'generalized form', property scenery and studio lighting".
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were disciples of the art critic John Ruskin who, in turn, became the Group's staunchest champion. He had high hopes for the group predicting that they might "lay in our England the foundations of a school of art nobler than the world had seen for three hundred years". According to Rosenfeld, the Brotherhood rose to Ruskin's challenge for "artists to open their eyes to the plethora of subjects available to them in the natural world, and to escape the strictures of traditional art instruction". The practice typically involved painting outdoors and by drawing directly from nature, and though this amounted to an afront to traditional painters and patrons, the Brotherhood quickly grew in popularity; due, in no small part, to Ruskin's support for the group.
Even though the pious Millais found himself amongst like-minded men, he was once removed from the group. Rosenfeld explains how, "he was notoriously unattached, and seemed to have had little interest in romantic associations [...] Millais stayed at home despite the fact that he was making more money than his peers, but he was largely supporting his family, even going to theatres to sketch actors to cover expenses". In turn his family doted on him and Millais's cousin, Edward Benest, once described how, "everything in that house was characteristic of the great devotion of all to the young artist; and yet he was in no way spoilt".
Millais's would overcome his social shyness once he started socializing with Ruskin and his wife, Euphemia - "Effie" - Chalmers Gray. The Ruskins did not enjoy a happy marriage. Ruskin, nine years his wife's senior, refused to consummate their marriage because of his refusal to father children.
Millais was immediately attracted to Effie and painted her portrait several times (and even tutored her in art lessons). His attraction quickly turned to love; the artist becoming even more smitten when he learned of Effie's marital unhappiness. Effie soon developed feelings for Millais who began to try and distance himself socially from Ruskin, a situation made all-the-more difficult given he was painting Ruskin's portrait at the time. Millais wrote to Effie's mother in 1854 stating: "If I had only myself to consult, I should write immediately and refuse to go on further with the portrait, which is the most hateful task I ever had to perform, but I am so anxious that Effie should not suffer further for any act of mine that I will put up with anything rather than increase her suffering". The Ruskins' marriage ended in April of 1854 when Effie filed for an annulment (which was granted in July of that year). Millais married Effie a year later on July 3, 1855, marking the start of a loving and happy marriage in which the couple raised four sons and two daughters.
The men's friendship ended, but Ruskin's reviews of Millais's work remained respectful (if somewhat less enthusiastic). Millais was entering a new phase in his art and produced many impressive paintings during this period, such as Autumn Leaves (1855-56). His new works were moving away from a strict adherence to realism (ergo his move away from Pre-Raphaelitism). Rosenfeld described how Millais had brought "a more mature aspect of his art" which coincided with his new role as a Royal Academy associate and his realization of the importance of prints as a means of supplementing his income and spreading his reputation.
By the late 1850s Millais was becoming more and more versatile, even using his art to make political statements. He also began to practice using his own children as models. He soon gained widespread recognition for his ability to capture the essence of childhood, receiving several commissions for children's portraits. These works were in such demand, in fact, that even highly connected and prestigious patrons could not be guaranteed a work. According to Rosenfeld, "at the Royal Academy dinner on 4 May 1867, Millais met Albert, Prince of Wales, who expressed a desire to purchase one of the artist's paintings that featured children, but Millais had to tell him they had all been sold".
In addition to his commissions, and his eagerness to sell prints of his paintings, he took on commercial jobs including the creation of eighteen designs for an 1857 publication of Alfred Tennyson's poems. According to Rosenfeld, "for over a decade Millais would work unceasingly in black and white for a variety of publishers [...] in addition to multiple publications from weeklies such as the Illustrated London News and Punch, to literary journals". His illustrative work would eventually decrease, however, as he started to obtain a steady income from the sale of his paintings for which there was a growing demand. His improved commercial situation coincided with his rise through the ranks at the Royal Academy (he would become a full Academician at the end of 1863).
Millais's exhibition at the Academy in 1859 brought him to the attention of James McNeill Whistler who was hugely impressed with his paintings. When the two men were introduced, Whistler told Millais, "I never flatter, but I will say that your picture is the finest piece of colour that has been on the walls of the Royal Academy for years". The style in which Millais was painting works such as Spring (1856-59) carried a strong narrative element featuring beautifully rendered young women and these works informed directly on the Aesthetic movement of which Whistler was a founding member.
The last decades of Millais's life were busy on a professional and a personal front. His acclaim at exhibitions, including the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1878, furthered still his reputation, but in his later years he focused almost exclusively on landscapes and portraiture. For his landscapes, Millais travelled to Scotland where he produced a total of twenty-one vistas, very often under difficult weather conditions. In a letter to his daughter Mary in 1876 he stated, "I could not feel my fingers, and gladly came in to a comfortable fire".
While he had created portraits since his early years at the Academy, his mature portraits were rendered in a heavier impasto style which brought him renewed respect. However, it was not his exquisite technical skill so much as his personal manner that his sitters responded to. Fellow artist Louise Jopling, who Millais painted in 1879, said of the artist: he was "the soul of good nature, and entirely without vanity, either personal or about his work [and] I never knew a man so utterly devoid of jealousy or spite".
Millais's most prestigious commissions came via two towering figures in British politics, Prime Ministers Benjamin Disraeli (in 1881) and William Ewart Gladstone (in 1879). Disraeli had told Millais, "I am a very bad sitter, but will not easily forego my chance of being known to posterity by your illustrious pencil", while Gladstone was so impressed with the artist's efforts he granted him the title of Baronet in 1885; making Millais the first British artist to receive the honor. The typically modest Millais was overwhelmed with the distinction, writing to his eldest daughter: "with the Queens approval Mr. Gladstone has made me a Baronet and the delight of the house is sweet to see, nothing but smiles from the kitchen upwards".
Personal tragedy plagued Millais during these years when his son George succumbed to typhoid fever in 1878. Devastated by the loss, he turned to painting for some solace. He later wrote to his friend Louise Jopling that, "when George died, I felt grateful for my work. Get you as soon as possible to your easel, as the surest means, not to forget, but to occupy your mind wholesomely and even happily".
Millais's health was dealt a severe blow when he was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx in 1894. He underwent surgery and a period of recuperation in Bath but he suffered from increasing headaches and eye pain. Writing to Effie, he said, "this enforced idleness is so wearying to me sometimes I feel I can very well resume my work, at others the old feeling comes back, and I dread the experiment [of returning to work] for fear of getting ill again". It was likely that the fear over his deteriorating health led to him creating his last works which returned him to religious themes.
Millais's health was so poor he could not fully appreciate his award of President of the Royal Academy - the very highest position in the British art establishment - which was bestowed on him on February 20, 1896. But, just three months later, he had to undergo a tracheotomy which robbed him of his capacity for speech, a situation that even saddened Queen Victoria who wrote to him asking if she could do anything to ease his situation. According to Rosenfeld, he asked that she might receive his wife, "having rejected her previously due to the annulment of her first marriage [which was] seen incorrectly by the Queen as a divorce". When he died soon after, aged just sixty-seven, the Queen wrote to a letter to Effie in which she expressed her personal, and the nation's, sadness over the loss of the greatest British artists of his age.
The Legacy of John Everett Millais
Millais played a key role in modernizing art in nineteenth century Britain. As a founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood he was part of one of the most radical movements in the history of British art, forming, in the words of art historian Jason Rosenfeld, "a youthfully bold challenge to the staid nature of the Royal Academy and art in general in Britain". As part of their reaction to the negative impact of industrialization, the Pre-Raphaelites revival of medieval styles, stories, and methods of production had a profound influence on the development of the Arts and Crafts movement (itself a precursor to Art Nouveau and Art Deco) and its revival of handicrafts in design.
Millais provided inspiration for many different artists, not least Vincent van Gogh who was influenced by his Scottish landscapes. In addition, the air of mystery with which he rendered many of his figures, and the ambiguous narratives in many of his paintings created after he moved away from the Pre-Raphaelite style, paved the way for the Aestheticism movement; inspiring the work of its key members Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler.
Millais also made a decisive historical impact on the mass-reproduction of fine art. His forward thinking would see him produce paintings on the explicit understanding that his dealers would turn them into prints. In so doing he not only increased his own reputation, but also widened the accessibility (and potential for personal ownership) of fine art pieces. Likewise, while many fine artists viewed illustration as a derivative practice, Millais valued the art of drawing for journals and newspapers, not just as a means of supplementing his income, but also as a way of further cultivating his painting skills.