John Everett Millais
Southampton, United Kingdom
Kensington, United Kingdom
Summary of John Everett Millais
Having emerged as a bone-fide child prodigy, Millais would embark on a career that saw him enjoy domestic and international fame in his own lifetime. As a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, he joined a tight-knit group of artists, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt, who rebelled against the prevailing norms in academic art. Considered by many to be the first avant-garde movement in British art, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood drew their inspiration from (pre-Raphaelite) artists such as Jan van Eyck and Albrecht Dürer and, like them, Millais looked directly to nature for inspiration. Known initially for an unprecedented attention to pictorial realism, Millais would develop a penchant for political works before, in later years, devoting himself exclusively to portraiture and Scottish landscapes. Millais is also recognized as the first Academy artist to expand his repertoire through newspaper illustration and reproductive prints. His brilliant career culminated in his election as President of the Royal Academy in 1896.
- Millais's work as a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood offered the first meaningful challenge to the "predictable" art of the Academy and its preference for early Italian Renaissance and Classical art. His paintings were the work of a pious young man with an almost fetishistic attention to detail. His early worksThey showed a especial daring in the way his religious parables represented holy figures as ordinary people placed in ordinary natural surroundings.
- Millais can take credit for helping legitimize the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as a serious movement and for raising its popularity and credibility amongst the public. He achieved this through a series of romantic paintings set against the backdrop of real political events. These historical works, delivered with his attention to detail, were also widely admired for the way in which he was able to capture the emotional state of his female protagonists.
- In a move away from his strict adherence to realism, Millais would turn to the theme of the female in nature, expressed through a more decorative style. These canvases were seen very much as meditations on the idea of beauty and youth, and on the passages of time. Though they were not to everyone's taste (they drew the sting of the influential critic, and champion of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, John Ruskin for instance) they proved to be significant transitional works that saw Millais's influence start to widen by impacting directly on the Aesthetic movement.
- For his mature works, Millais travelled to Scotland where he made a number of important landscapes. These pieces lacked his earlier eye for detail; the artist being intent rather on using his palette to explore a range of emotional effects. What distinguished Millais's works from others working in landscapes was the variety in his paintings which saw him produce images that ranged from high drama to quiet melancholy.
- Running parallel to his landscape painting, Millais emerged as a highly accomplished portrait painter. On the one hand his "unfussy" adult portraits imbued his sitters, several of whom held high positions in public office, with a power and modesty that drew comparisons with the likes of Rembrandt and Velazquez. On the other, he produced several highly effective and sentimental portraits of young children which saw (though not to everyone's approval) the artist break new ground in terms of the cross-over between fine art and mass reproduction.
Biography of John Everett Millais
Having already caused an uproar within the British art establishment with his paintings, Millais, with Effie Gray and John Ruskin, scandalized Victorian society as players in one of the greatest love triangles in the history of art.
Important Art by John Everett Millais
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".
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.
A Huguenot, on St Bartholomew's Day, Refusing to Shield Himself from Danger by Wearing the Roman Catholic Badge (1851-52)
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".
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on John Everett Millais
- John Everett MillaisOur PickBy Jason Rosenfeld
- Millais: PortraitsBy Peter Funnell, Kate Flint, and Malcolm Warner
- Tate British Artists: John Everett MillaisBy Christine Riding
- Obituary of Sir John Everett MillaisOur PickBy The Times / Art Renewal Center / August 14, 1896
- Rebels of art and science: the empirical drive of the Pre-RaphaelitesBy John Holmes / Nature / October 24, 2018
- Tate sets out to rescue the reputation of artist tarnished by BubblesOur PickBy Maev Kennedy / The Guardian / May 16, 2007
- Ophelia, Death, and the Pre-Raphaelite BrotherhoodOur PickIn this lecture, Ashmolean Museum curator Hannah Lyon discusses John Everett Millais's painting Ophelia.
- The Art of Illustration: Millais, the Pre-Raphaelites and the Idyllic SchoolIn this lecture, Dr. Paul Goldman of the University of London discusses the illustration work of John Everett Millais; something far less discussed than his paintings.
- Artist's love story still captures the imaginationOur PickTheCourier.co.uk / July 5, 2016 / This article describes the recent auction sale of one of John Everett Millais's paintings of his wife Effie. It also discusses the 2014 film Effie Gray which details the story of the annulment of her marriage to critic John Ruskin and eventual marriage to the artist. Written by Emma Thompson it stars Dakota Fanning in the lead role.
- How Gucci confirmed that Old Masters are back in fashionOur PickChristies.com / March 12, 2018 / This article details how Gucci's creative director Alessandro Michele's 2018 Spring/Summer Collection was inspired by old master paintings including John Everett Millais's Ophelia.