Progression of Art
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 Tate, London, 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 Tate, London, 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 Tate, London, 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 Tate, London, 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, United Kingdom
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