John Everett Millais (1829–1896) was a child prodigy and co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB). He started his studies at the Royal Academy Schools in London when he was only eleven years old. It was there that he met Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt, with whom he formed the PRB in 1848.
During the 1850s his style changed, and it is generally accepted that he ceased painting according to Pre-Raphaelite principles. This article is a survey of a selection of his works to examine what happened and when.
Millais completed one of the earliest examples of PRB painting when he was only nineteen, in his Isabella (Lorenzo and Isabella) (1848-49). When exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1849, it was accompanied by the following lines from verses 1 and 21 of John Keats’ poem Isabella or the Pot of Basil:
Fair Isabel, poor simple Isabel!
Lorenzo, a young palmer in Love’s eye!
They could not in the self-same mansion dwell
Without some stir of heart, some malady;
They could not sit at meals but feel how well
It soothed each to be the other by;
These brethren having found by many signs
What love Lorenzo for their sister had,
And how she lov’d him too, each unconfines
His bitter thoughts to other, well nigh mad
That he, the servant of their trade designs
Should in their sister’s love be blithe and glad
When t’was their plan to coax her by degrees
To some high noble and his olive trees.
These refer the the story in Boccaccio’s Decameron of the ill-fated love of Isabella for Lorenzo, the household steward. Her brothers murder Lorenzo, and bury his body in a forest. The location of his grave is revealed in a dream to Isabella, who disinters his head and hides it in a pot of basil.
The painting shows Lorenzo sharing a blood orange with Isabella, white roses and passion flowers climbing from behind their heads. The dog, acting as a surrogate for Lorenzo, is being petted by Isabella, but one of her brothers aims a kick at it. Various other symbols are shown of the plot to kill Lorenzo: a brother staring at a glass of red wine, spilt salt on the table, and a hawk pecking at a white feather. The pot of basil is already on the balcony, awaiting Lorenzo’s head.
Christ in the House of His Parents (also known as The Carpenter’s Shop) (1849–50) was shown at the Royal Academy in 1850 without a title, but with this quotation from the Old Testament book of Zechariah 13:6:
And one shall say unto him, What are those wounds in thine hands? Then he shall answer, Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends.
The young Jesus is shown being comforted by his kneeling mother, after he has cut the palm of his left hand on a nail. The figures and objects are depicted with great and meticulous realism, and were painted from nature. Nevertheless the composition abounds with symbols of Christ’s life and future crucifixion: the cut on his palm is one of the stigmata, and blood dripped from that onto his left foot is another. The young Saint John the Baptist has fetched a bowl of water, indicating his future baptismal role. A triangle above Christ’s head symbolises the Trinity, and a white dove perched on the ladder is the Holy Spirit. A flock of sheep outside represents the Christian flock.
Another PRB classic, it was vilified by the critics of the day, including Charles Dickens.
Just the next year, though, his Mariana (1851) shows early signs of change. Shown at the Royal Academy in the same year, it was accompanied by lines 9-12 of Tennyson’s poem Mariana (1830):
She only said, “My life is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said, “I am aweary, aweary;
I would that I were dead!”
Millais’ richly-coloured painting is still full of detail and a profusion of symbols: fallen leaves to indicate the passage of time, her embroidery as a means of passing that time, the Annunciation in the stained glass contrasting her with the Virgin’s fulfilment, the motto in coelo quies (‘in heaven is rest’), the snowdrop flower in the glass meaning consolation, and the distant candle burning its lonely vigil for her love. Mariana’s posture is intended to indicate her yearning for Angelo, her betrothed.
Millais has here moved from the complex multi-person narrative of his early PRB paintings to a simple, static view of a lone woman in isolated despondency – the subject of Tennyson’s poem, rather than that of Shakespeare’s play.
This was followed by Ophelia (1851-2), in which Millais shows a climax in Shakespeare’s narrative from Hamlet: Ophelia drowning herself in the “weeping brook”. In this, one of the most famous of all Pre-Raphaelite paintings, there is still rich symbolism in its flowers: roses for love, possibly also alluding to her brother calling her the ‘rose of May’; willow, nettle and daisy for forsaken love, suffering, and innocence, respectively; pansies for love in vain; violets (in her necklace chain) for faithfulness, chastity, or young death; poppies for death; forget-me-nots for remembrance.
Millais remained true to nature, painting its background en plein air near Ewell, Surrey, England, and putting his model, Elizabeth Siddal (who later married Rossetti), in a bath full of water. But his complex, multi-person narratives were gone.
Autumn Leaves (1856) is generally accepted as being the first good example of what might best be termed post-Pre-Raphaelite painting. It retains some principles, such as truth to nature and great detail, but is evocative and unashamedly sensual.
Prettejohn and Barringer devote long discussion to Millais’ influences and intent, but there can be little doubt that it is inspired by Aestheticism to evoke the sounds, smells, and feel of an autumn dusk. It has not a shred of narrative, and its only possible symbol is the single apple, held by the girl in the right foreground, which is more likely to be seasonal than symbolic.
The Eve of St Agnes (1863) is one of the few paintings by Pre-Raphaelites to have been purchased by the British Royal Collection: despite the great achievements of the movement, their works were not favoured by Queen Victoria.
Millais took as his theme the popular poem by John Keats, The Eve of St Agnes, written in 1819. This tells the eventful story of the elopement of Madeline and her lover Porphyro on Saint Agnes’ Eve, the night when virgins are supposed to be able to enjoy sweet dreams of their husbands-to-be.
The painting shows Madeline completing the rituals prescribed for the night, as she prepares to undress for bed (verses 25-26):
Full on this casement shone the wintry moon,
And threw warm gules on Madeline’s fair breast,
…her vespers done,
Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;
Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;
Loosens her fragrant boddice; by degrees
Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees:
Half-hidden, like a mermaid in sea-weed,
Pensive awhile she dreams awake, and sees,
In fancy, fair St. Agnes in her bed,
But dares not look behind, or all the charm is fled.
This curiously static scene from an action-packed narrative was painted from life: Millais used the King’s Bedroom in the Jacobean house at Knole Park, near Sevenoaks in Kent, with his wife Effie as his model. The special bull’s eye lantern producing the eerie lighting effect was another detail over which he took meticulous care. The end result is another evocative, sensual painting which is almost devoid of narrative.
It contrasts with Holman Hunt’s earlier study (below), showing the eloping couple creeping past drunken bodies as they leave the house, later in the story.
The Martyr of the Solway (c 1871) shows a shameful episode in the persecution of Scottish Presbyterians under Kings Charles II and James II. The woman seen here chained to a stake – reminiscent of Andromeda in classical myth – is Margaret Wilson of Wigtown, who was an extreme Presbyterian who opposed the authority of bishops. She was fixed to this stake in the Solway Firth, on the south-west coast of Scotland, and left to drown as the tide came in.
Her dress, the open-neck blouse in particular, aroused suspicions more recently, and X-ray studies have now shown that Millais’ original version of the painting showed her nude, just as Andromeda should have been. He added her clothing later, presumably to avoid critical (and public) outrage. Not only has Millais now painted a three-quarter length portrait of a woman deep in thought, but he has finally abandoned the last vestige of the Pre-Raphaelite, with his painterly brushstrokes.
The North-West Passage (1874) apparently coincided with the departure of a British expedition in futile quest of the rumoured north-west passage round the north of Canada to the Pacific, which had brought a succession of failures since the total loss of Sir John Franklin’s expedition of 1845. Millais addresses this topical issue in his version of a ‘problem picture‘; rather than the symbolic richness of the Pre-Raphaelite, it contains numerous clues to guide the viewer to a reading.
The old man is clearly an experienced mariner, who knows the risks and futility, which are expressed in his body-language. The young woman, probably his daughter, is presumably the wife of one of those on the expedition. The man stares hard and cold, the woman reads anxiously. Behind them a chart shows the limited knowledge of the area of the north-west passage at the time. Flags declare an affinity with the nation, and its Navy. A painting on the wall shows a ship negotiating ice in the far north.
The view through the window shows that this is set on the coast, and there is a sailing vessel in sight. A telescope rests on the table, by a glass presumably containing rum. Below the table are old ships’ logs and other papers.
Millais’ account of Cinderella (1881) is a portrait of her sat in her working dress, clutching a broomstick with her left hand, and with a peacock feather (also a hallmark of the Aesthetic movement) in her right. She has a wistful expression, staring into the distance almost – but not quite – in the direction of the viewer. The only other cue to the narrative is a mouse, seen at the bottom left of the painting. Cinderella wears a small red skull-cap which could be an odd part of her ball outfit, but her feet are bare, and there is no sign of any glass slipper. Narrative is almost absent.
The Captive (Ruby) (1882) is another three-quarter length portrait of a woman lost in thought, presumably being held captive. Beyond its orientalist influence, there are few clues as to its reading, and it may have referred to contemporary events.
Blow Blow Thou Winter Wind (1892) is something of a ‘problem picture’. It is a bitter day in the British winter, snow already on the ground and more snow on its way. An icy wind is blowing, and there is little shelter. In the foreground, a destitute mother sits, cradling her young baby inside an inadequate shawl, her few worldly possessions in a small bundle beside her. Behind a dog bays into the air, and a man walks into the distance.
The viewer is invited to speculate on the relationship, if any, between the man and the woman, and the circumstances by which she and her baby find themselves in such straits. Inevitably, at the time, it would have evoked the theme of the ‘fallen woman’ in its variations.
One of Millais’ last paintings, before his death from throat cancer the following year, was Speak! Speak! (1895), which is also one of his most enigmatic. At this stage, he spent much of his time in Scotland, either in his home near Bowerswell where this was painted, or in the castle and estate at Murthly in Perthshire, where he went shooting and fishing. He bought this huge four-poster bed from Perth for this painting, and had the lamp copied from one he had seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Millais’ son reported that this scene was intended to be in ancient Rome. The young man had spent much of the night reading through the letters of his lost love. At dawn, the curtains were parted to reveal her, dressed as for her bridal night, gazing upon him with sad but loving eyes. The title of the painting is therefore the words that he said to her spectre. The woman’s figure is intentionally ambiguous, Millais himself being unsure as to whether she was real, or just a spectre.
So ended Millais’ journey from crisp, bright, detailed realism with the profuse symbols of the Pre-Raphaelite, through the increasingly Aesthetic, to ‘problem pictures’ so popular with the Victorian public by the end of the century.
Barringer T (1998, 2012) Reading the Pre-Raphaelites, revised ed., Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 17733 6.
Prettejohn E (2007) Art for Art’s Sake: Aestheticism in Victorian Painting, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 13549 7.