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.
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
First published on 02 Aug 2020. Updated and modified regularly