Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Happy Birthday Sir John Everett Millais 8 June 1829 – 13 August 1896

Sir John Everett Millais

Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Baronet, PRA was an English painter and illustrator and one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. His prodigious artistic talent won him a place at the Royal Academy schools at the unprecedented age of eleven. While there, he met William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti with whom he formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (known as the "PRB") in September 1848 in his family home on Gower Street, off Bedford Square.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti Self-Portrait
 by George Frederic Watts

William Holman Hunt in his Eastern dress 
Photo taken by Julia Margaret Cameron

Millais' Christ In The House Of His Parents (1850) was highly controversial because of its realistic portrayal of a working class Holy Family labouring in a messy carpentry workshop. Later works were also controversial, though less so. Millais achieved popular success with A Huguenot (1852), which depicts a young couple about to be separated because of religious conflicts. He repeated this theme in many later works. All these early works were painted with great attention to detail, often concentrating on the beauty and complexity of the natural world. In paintings such as Ophelia (1852) Millais created dense and elaborate pictorial surfaces based on the integration of naturalistic elements. This approach has been described as a kind of "pictorial eco-system".
This style was promoted by the critic John Ruskin, who had defended the Pre-Raphaelites against their critics. Millais' friendship with Ruskin introduced him to Ruskin's wife Effie. Soon after they met she modelled for his painting The Order of Release. As Millais painted Effie they fell in love. Despite having been married to Ruskin for several years, Effie was still a virgin. Her parents realized something was wrong and she filed for an annulment. In 1855, after her marriage to Ruskin was annulled, Effie and John Millais married. He and Effie eventually had eight children: Everett, born in 1856; George, born in 1857; Effie, born in 1858; Mary, born in 1860; Alice, born in 1862; Geoffroy, born in 1863; John in 1865; and Sophie in 1868. Their youngest son, John Guille Millais, became a notable naturalist and wildlife artist. Effie's younger sister Sophy Gray sat for several pictures by Millais, prompting some speculation about the nature of their apparently fond relationship.
Christ In The House Of His Parents (1850)

A Huguenot (1852), 

Ophelia (1852) 

The Order of Release, 1746 (Effie) (1853)


After his marriage, Millais began to paint in a broader style, which was condemned by Ruskin as "a catastrophe". It has been argued that this change of style resulted from Millais' need to increase his output to support his growing family. Unsympathetic critics such as William Morris accused him of "selling out" to achieve popularity and wealth. His admirers, in contrast, pointed to the artist's connections with Whistler and Albert Moore, and influence on John Singer Sargent. Millais himself argued that as he grew more confident as an artist, he could paint with greater boldness. Paintings such as The Eve of St. Agnes and The Somnambulist clearly show an ongoing dialogue between the artist and Whistler, whose work Millais strongly supported. Other paintings of the late 1850s and 1860s can be interpreted as anticipating aspects of the Aesthetic Movement.

Later works, from the 1870s onwards demonstrate Millais' reverence for old masters such as Joshua Reynolds and Velázquez. Many of these paintings were of an historical theme and were further examples of Millais' talent. Notable among these are: The Two Princes Edward and Richard in the Tower (1878) depicting the Princes in the Tower, The Northwest Passage (1874) and the Boyhood of Raleigh (1871). Such paintings indicate Millais' interest in subjects connected to Britain's history and expanding empire. His last project (1896) was to be a painting entitled The Last Trek. Based on his illustration for his son's book, it depicted a white hunter lying dead in the African veldt, his body contemplated by two Africans.

The Eve of St. Agnes (1863)

The Somnambulist AKA (The Woman In White) 1871

The Two Princes Edward and Richard in the Tower, 1483 (1878) 


Millais was also very successful as a book illustrator, notably for the works of Anthony Trollope and the poems of Tennyson. His complex illustrations of the parables of Jesus were published in 1864. His father-in-law commissioned stained-glass windows based on them for Kinnoull parish church, Perth. He also provided illustrations for magazines such as Good Words. In 1869 he was recruited as an artist for the newly founded weekly newspaper The Graphic.

Millais was elected as an associate member of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1853, and was soon elected as a full member of the Academy, in which he was a prominent and active participant. He was granted a baronetcy in 1885, the first artist to be honoured with a hereditary title. After the death of The Lord Leighton in 1896, Millais was elected President of the Royal Academy, but he died later in the same year from throat cancer. He was buried in St Paul's Cathedral.

When Millais died in 1896, the Prince of Wales (later to become King Edward VII) chaired a memorial committee, which commissioned a statue of the artist. This was installed at the front of the National Gallery of British Art (now Tate Britain) in the garden on the east side in 1905. On 23 November that year, the Pall Mall Gazette called it "a breezy statue, representing the man in the characteristic attitude in which we all knew him".
In 1953, Tate Director, Sir Norman Reid, attempted to have it replaced by Auguste Rodin's John the Baptist, and in 1962 again proposed its removal, calling its presence "positively harmful". His efforts were frustrated by the statue's owner, the Ministry of Works. Ownership was transferred from the Ministry to English Heritage in 1996, and by them in turn to the Tate. In 2000, under Stephen Deuchar's directorship, the statue was removed to the rear of the building.

Millais' relationship with Ruskin and Effie has been the subject of several dramas, beginning with the silent film The Love of John Ruskin from 1912. There have also been stage and radio plays and an opera. The PRB as a whole have been the subjects of two BBC period dramas. The first, entitled The Love School, was shown in 1975, starring Peter Egan as Millais. The second was Desperate Romantics, in which Millais is played by Samuel Barnett. It was first broadcast on BBC 2 Tuesday, 21 July 2009.

Please feel free to leave any comments or questions,

2 comments:

Robert Parry said...

A sadness for Millais was that the Queen had ostracised Effie - even though he was elevated to the Peerage by Victoria herself. This was because Effie was a divorcee - which seems strange to us now. His dying wish was that the Queen would ‘receive’ his wife at court, which I think did happen eventually. One of our greatest artists. Happy Birthday to him!

Kimberly Eve said...

Yes, what a shame that Millais wasn't able to live to see his love finally recognized in the manner to which she deserved! How times have changed! Thank you for such an interesting comment Robert.

Thank you and Farewell

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