8th June 2017
Sir John Everett Millais was born on this day in 1829. An English painter and illustrator, he’s remembered today as hugely influential due to being a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
“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.” – Sir John Everett Millais
The Brotherhood was actually founded at his family home in London, at 83 Gower Street (which is now number 7.)
His painting, Christ in the House of His Parents 1849-50 (today found in Tate Britain in London) depicts the Holy Family in Saint Joseph’s workshop. The painting, hugely controversial, absolutely catapulted the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood from absolute obscurity into a group everyone was talking about and set off many talking about the place of realism in the arts. Charles Dickens was a huge critic of the piece, “…so hideous in her ugliness that … she 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.” Dickens in this quotation refers to Mary, who he believes in the piece was portrayed as an alcoholic. The public didn’t appreciate the realistic way the carpentry workshop was shown with the dirt and shavings on the floor- during this time religious art was grand and the general portrayal was of Jesus and his family in costumes of togas in beautiful settings. In fact, the piece was so well known, Queen Victoria herself asked for it to be brought to Buckingham Palace for her to view it in private.
Becoming one of the wealthiest artists of the time, he became hugely successful after his move away from the Pre-Raphaelite style as he became much more inspired by realism in art. His latter works were hugely successful in their own right away from the movement.
His wife Effie was previously married to John Ruskin, who we discuss often in our blog and had supported Millais’ early work. Some studies of his art and style has been linked to this period of her marriage annulment and then subsequent marriage to Millais however whatever the reason, the fact is she became a huge promoter of his work and they worked together to really boost his career and she was a huge help for how successful he became, together expanding their social and intellectual circles.
We’ve been lucky enough to see some of Millais’s work first hand at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) our favourites were the following two pieces:
To meet the growing demand for his work, he painted several smaller scale compositions. As stated by the BMAG, “There was a convention in the mid- 1850s for paintings of young women alone in a landscape or garden setting, often sitting by a wall or stile or lingering under a tree. Even if- as in this example- there was no overt narrative, contemporary audience would have inferred that the young woman was awaiting the arrival of a lover.”
The Blind Girl, 1854-6
This is a beautiful piece, the colours intriguing and it really makes you stop to look at it. The gallery speak of this piece, “Millais began by painting the landscape for his projected painted of The Blind Girl on a visit to Winchelsea in Sussex in 1854. The figures were then added in Perth where he painted Matilda Proufoot as a replacement for Effie Ruskin as the blind girl, and Isabella Nicol as her sister. The dazzling observation of the sun drenched cornfield forms an unforgettable backdrop to the light and colour denied to the main figure. The painting was seen by a number of contemporaries as a contemporary treatment of a ‘pathetic’ or religious subject.”
His most famous piece was Ophelia, which can now been seen in the Tate Britain and was completed between 1851 and 1852. The scene depicted is taken from Shakespeare’s Hamlet- the scene in which the tragic-romantic Ophelia drowns herself in a stream after being driven mad when her father is murdered by Hamlet, her lover. For the background, Millais stuck close to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood aims of having a close observation of nature however found it rather difficult due to the conditions of painting outside in nature and the blurred lines between a beautiful piece of art and realism. He wrote to Mrs Thomas Combe, “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.” (J.G. Millais I, pp.119-20)
The model for Ophelia was actually Elizabeth Siddal who if you’ve seen many pieces of Pre-Raphaelite art, you’ll see her frequently as she as one of the favourite models for the group and later married Rossetti. She posed over a 4 month period in a bath full of water which was kept warm by the lamps placed underneath- she caught a severe cold doing this in cold water when the lamps went out and her father threatened legal action until Millais was forced to cover the legal bills- art comes at a price!
If you’ve enjoyed this blog, make sure to look up more of Millais’ life and work- it’s really fascinating! Make sure to keep checking our blog for more Pre-Raphaelite blogs and other fun bits we get up to!
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