British Art

John Everett Millais

English Pre-Raphaelite Painter and Illustrator

 (1829-1896)

Ophelia

 

John Everett Millais was born in Southampton in 1829. He founded the Pre-Raphaelite art movement and during his lifetime painted more than thirty major works of art. In this picture his subject is 'Ophelia' from William Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' who driven out of her mind by Hamlet's neglect and the murder of her father drowns in a stream ...

SOME OTHER PAINTINGS BY JOHN EVERETT MILLAIS

        

   

       

Millais was a child-prodigy of such exceptional promise that he was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools at the age of eleven. Ruskin records an anecdote of his youthful talent which suggests that he could draw with complete adult assurance at the age of seven. Unlike most other aspiring painters he was given every encouragement in the pursuit of his chosen career, his parents even moving from their home in Jersey to allow him to study in London. His amazing facility of hand and eye, coupled with the most thorough and vigorous training available, allowed him to accomplish astonishing feats of technical proficiency. He maintained a consistently high degree of accurate representation, for which he was accorded the unstinted admiration of the public.

Millais became a baron, was elected President of the Royal Academy and enjoyed, at the height of his success, an income of 30,000 per year. The interior of his large house in Palace Gate is a testimony to his achievement, furnished with an opulence which contrasts strangely with the aesthetic Morris-inspired schemes favoured by Rossetti and Burne Jones. Ironically all this adulation was accorded to Millais later works when the demands of his growing family, and probably also of his own temperament, had led him to abandon Pre Raphaelitism in favour of portrait painting (he became one of the most successful English portrait painters of the age) and of popular historical and genre subjects.

The contrast between Millais' Pre-Raphaelite paintings and his later works shows with startling clarity how greatly Pre-Raphaelitism must have offended popular taste. The comparison can be made directly in at least one instance, between the dream-like The Bridesmaid of 1851, and the same subject dating from 1879, which is a conventional portrait treatment of his second daughter Mary as bridesmaid to her older sister. Millais himself had foreseen this situation early on, and is recorded as advising intending purchasers to buy his pictures while Millais was still working for fame rather than for a wife and children. It can surely be no coincidence that Millais' change in style occurs almost precisely at the time of his marriage. Ruskin was appalled by Millais' 1857 Academy picture A Dream of the Past: Sir Isumbras at the Ford, and the end of his Pre-Raphaelite phase is usually dated in 1855 or '56. Modern taste has sided with Ruskin in admiring the earlier works, and it seems unlikely that The Boyhood of Raleigh or Bubbles will again eclipse Christ in the House of his Parents or The Blind Girl in popular esteem.

Millais was born in Southampton, Hampshire, but lived on Jersev (one of the Channel Islands) until he entered Sass's Drawing School at the early age of nine. Two years later he entered the Royal Academy Schools where he stayed for six years. His remarkable Pizarro seizing the Inca of Peru, painted when he was only sixteen, was exhibited at the Academy in 1846. Before the formation of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood. Millais had already completed and exhibited a number of pictures, sytlistically typical of his period, following Etty of Maclise, in what Hunt refers to as 'the old style' when speaking of the pictures that Millais still had not completed when he embarked on his first Pre-Raphaelite work. Lorenzo and Isabella illustrates an incident from Keat's poem Isabella, or the Pot of Basil. It was shown at the Academy in 1849 and received sufficiently encouraging notices for Millais to feel that Pre-Raphaelitism had a good chance of success.

In the following year these hopes were shattered with the abusive reception of the new Pre-Raphaelite pictures, including Millais' Christ in the House of his Parents. It was possibly the accusation of blasphemy against this work which prompted Collinson to withdraw from the P.R.B. Millais was subject to further critical attacks in 1851, particularly for the commonplace appearance of the left-hand figure in The Return of the Dove to the Ark. At this point Ruskin was persuaded to intervene and the worst criticisms of the Pre-Raphalite work gave place to temperate enthusiasm. By 1852 Millais' The Huguenot gained a great popular success at the Academy, and in 1853 he was elected an A.R.A. Rossetti regarded this defection to the establishment as marking the end of Millais' association with the Pre- Raphaelites.

Few Pre-Raphaelite works followed The Huguenot. The Blind Girl and Autumn Leaves were completed by 1856 and shown at the Academy in that year. The years between 1857 and 1870, when the first of the popular subject-pictures, The Boyhood of Raleigh was painted, were occupied with a mixture of literary, historical and genre pictures. Some of these enjoyed considerable popular success, for example The Black Brunswicker and the two Sermon pictures. From 1870 the subject pictures were interspersed with highly successful society portraits painted with great fluency and accuracy. They present a sad contrast to the originality and intensity of vision in, for example, the early portraits of Millais' patron James Wyatt and his daughter Mrs James Wyatt junior painted in 1849, or the Wilkie Collins of 1850 and Mrs Coventry Patmore, 1851, but they were precisely what the sitters required and expected.

In 1886, the year after he had been created a Baronet, one hundred and fifty-nine of Millais' works were shown at an exhibition in the Grosvenor Gallery, and Holman Hunt claims that Millais then recognised the decline in quality of his later works, admitting to an acquaintance that 'I'm not ashamed of avowing that I have so far failed in my maturity to fulfill the full forecast of my youth'.

Millais would have probably developed as an academic painter much earlier had it not been for his friendship with Holman Hunt. For him Pre-Raphaelitism was simply an episode, which provided an opportunity to experiment with techniques and compositional effects outside the usual range of a successful and popular artist, and to test critical reaction to the new and unusual. It is unlikely that Millais' true temperament was drastically altered by his marriage, therefore it must be assumed that the academic painter was in abeyance while the Pre-Raphaelite took over, ready to emerge when required.

Pre Raphaelite Art