The contradictions of 19th century British painter John Everett Millais

This video is about John Everett Millais.

By Megan Trudell in Britain:

John Everett Millais: rebel Victorian who sold out to commerce

Megan Trudell looks at the chequered career of John Everett Millais

The Tate Britain’s latest blockbuster exhibition showcases the work of the Victorian artist John Everett Millais. He is most famous for his founding role in the innovative and rebellious Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. But Millais is also well known for subsequently selling out and painting sentimental pictures for commercial gain.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed in 1848 – a time of mass industrialisation and political upheaval – by several artists who were frustrated at the brutality of industrial society and the constraints of Victorian convention.

The Pre-Raphaelites rejected academic artistic conventions, in particular the insistence that Italian Renaissance painting had set the standards for composition and subject matter in painting.

They denounced the Royal Academy as a reactionary institution and official art as conservative and pretentious, and called for a wide ranging artistic and moral renewal.

In particular, the Pre-Raphaelites looked back to the “primitivism” of Medieval painting. This was a move away from grandiose historical and religious subjects towards a more intimate style that emphasised emotion and literary themes.

A bit problematic in this is that Raphael is usually considered as marking the transition from Renaissance to Mannerist art; not from Medieval to Renaissance art.


Millais, Christ In The House of His Parents

The Pre-Raphaelites scandalised the Victorian art establishment. Millais’s 1850 painting Christ In The House Of His Parents was considered offensive for showing a young Jesus Christ with a drawn and tired looking Mary in his father’s workshop. The Times called the picture “plainly revolting” for showing sacred figures in the poverty and dirt of mundane existence.

As well as biblical themes, the Brotherhood were strongly influenced by literature. Millais’s most famous picture is of Shakespeare’s Ophelia drowned and floating downstream, surrounded by meticulously detailed flowers and foliage.

The poet John Keats [see also here] was another major influence. Millais’s painting Isabella is based on a Keats poem and provides an excellent illustration of the tenets of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Millais, Isabella

It shows Isabella and her lover Lorenzo sitting at dinner, oblivious to the tension among the other family members who oppose their ­relationship. The suppressed emotion on each face enlivens what appears at first glance to be a flat and decorative picture in Medieval style.

The Pre-Raphaelites believed the task of artists was to express thoughts and emotions while holding to the idea of “truth in nature”.

This makes for paintings that are often highly contradictory. At best they capture a longing for an age of mystery and values lost in the ravages of industrial progress. At worst they are little more than Victorian sentiment in Medieval form.

In his later work, Millais continued to produce realistic depictions of the natural world combined with emotion and spiritualism. But his stylistic radicalism slipped away and his paintings became increasingly traditional.

By the 1860s industrial capitalism was advancing at extraordinary pace. Radical movements such as Chartism were finished and England had become the “workshop of the world” – and would remain so for 25 years.

During this period Millais moved towards the ideas of painters such as Frederic Leighton and James Whistler who advocated “art for art’s sake”. This emphasised technical details such as composition, detail and decoration.

By the 1870s, Millais had made his peace with academic art. His earlier revolt behind him, he became a member of the Royal Academy. His work became larger in size – and more grandiose and indebted to the Renaissance traditions that he had rejected in his youth.

The curators of the Tate exhibition try to argue that Millais’s later work somehow continues to be radical, in terms of artistic technique at least. They insist that the notion of Millais as a young rebel who sold out, ending up churning out popular sentimental tat, is wide off the mark.

Yet on the evidence of the exhibition it is hard to justify these claims. The last years of Millais’s career illustrated in the exhibition are taken up with portraits of the great and the good of Victorian society.

There are also the so called “fancy pictures” – nauseating chocolate-box images of children, such as “Bubbles” which later became a promotional picture for Pears’ Soap.


Pears´ soap ad, based on Millais

Late Victorian society – or at least the class that Millais painted – was rich with the gains of empire. Millais is an uncritical describer of that culture in his later work. The use of “Bubbles” to sell soap is justified on the grounds of the “democratisation of art”. In fact it is more about promoting bourgeois views to the “lower classes”.

The last rooms show nothing more than a conventional painter pandering to the pretensions of his class. It has no indication of Millais’s earlier radical rejection of the values of profit, nor his empathy with the realities of oppression proclaimed by industrial society.

Judging by this exhibition, Millais’s art suffered for his capitulation to Victorian capitalism.

Millais runs at the Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1, until 13 January. Tickets cost £11. For more details go here.

Tate Britain has spent five years bringing together some of the greatest pre-Raphaelite works for a show that repositions the artists as the radicals of their day. We witness the culmination of a huge project, as everything, from the largest Burne-Jones to the smallest fridge magnet, finds its place: here.

Girl who drowned picking flowers may have inspired Shakespeare’s Ophelia: here.

13 thoughts on “The contradictions of 19th century British painter John Everett Millais

  1. 2008-08-13 15:45

    Vasto fetes Dante Rossetti’s family

    Pre- Raphaelite painter’s family hailed from Abruzzo town

    (ANSA) – Vasto, August 13 – The seaside Abruzzo town of Vasto is celebrating the family of one its most famous exiles, Gabriele Rossetti, whose English-born offspring caused a stir in London’s 19th-century art and literature circles.

    Commemorating 180 years since the birth of Gabriele’s most famous son, Dante Gabriel, the seaside town is hosting an exhibition of books, documents, photographs and art exploring the life and work of the Rossetti family. The centrepiece of the show will be a valuable painting on loan from London by Dante Gabriel, co-founder of the romantic Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood with its love of all things medieval. Beata Beatrix, normally held in the Tate Britain, depicts the artist’s wife Elizabeth Siddal as Dante Alighieri’s muse Beatrice.

    Completed between 1864 and 1870, it was part of a cycle of paintings by Dante Gabriel illustrating the Italian poet’s La Vita Nuova, and shows Beatrice at the moment of her death. The painting is seen as a tribute to Siddal, who died of a laudanum overdose in 1862. However, the exhibition, which opens on August 14, explores the talents of the entire Rossetti family. Born in Vasto in 1783, Gabriele Rossetti was forced to flee Vasto at the age of 38 as a result of his support for revolutionary Italian nationalism.

    He settled in London three years later, where he became Professor of Italian at King’s College and married Frances Polidori, with whom he had four children. Maria Francesca Rossetti (1827-1876) was the eldest, and became an author and later an Anglican nun.

    Dante Gabriele (1828-1882) was born next. Although named Gabriel Charles Dante, he called himself Dante in honour of Dante Alighieri.

    He studied poetry and later published translations of various medieval Italian poets but is today best known for his artwork, particularly his contribution to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919) was also heavily involved in the movement, editing its magazine and penning its founding principles. After Dante Gabriele, Christina (1830-1894) was the Rossetti to gain most recognition for her work.

    Hailed as the ”next female laureate” after the death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, she wrote a variety of religious and children’s poems. Today, she is best known for her long poem Goblin Market. Illustrated by Dante Gabriele, it tells of two close sisters tempted by goblins to buy strange fruit.

    The exhibition, curated by Pre-Raphaelite expert and biographer, Jan Marsh, features 30 artworks on loan from the US and the UK, as well as an array of original documents.

    It runs in from August 14 until November 16.


  2. Ravenna celebrates Pre-Raphaelites

    Show is Italy’s first ever on influential British movement

    10 March, 18:54

    Ravenna celebrates Pre-Raphaelites (ANSA) – Ravenna, March 10 – The impact of Italian art on Britain’s influential 19th-century Pre-Raphaelite movement is explored in a new exhibition in the coastal town of Ravenna.

    The event is Italy’s first ever on the movement as a whole and aims to provide the Italian public with an overview of their work. Founded in the second half of the 1800s by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelites sought to break with artistic convention of the day.

    They called for a revival of spontaneity and passion for nature, which they believed had been lost during the Mannerist revolution sparked by Raphael. The Pre-Raphaelites were particularly fascinated by the brilliant colours, attention to natural detail, extreme simplicity and intensity of expression in Italian medieval art. Italian art, landscapes and history played a critical role in their efforts to encourage British painting in a more personal and emotional direction. During its early years, the movement focused on medieval and pre-Renaissance styles but by the end of the 1850s, Pre-Raphaelite interest had expanded to include 15th-century paintings, particularly the work of Venetian artists.

    In addition to the fascination with Italian art, the Pre-Raphaelites were also drawn by its literature.

    Rossetti, the son of an Italian scholar who settled in London, was particularly inspired by Dante’s writings and completed a series of exquisite watercolours and paintings illustrating key episodes of the Divine Comedy. The exhibition features numerous loans from British and US museums and private collections, including a string of works from the famous collection of Pre-Raphaelite works at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. These are offset by a number of the original Italian masterpieces that inspired the movement, among which works by Fra Angelico, Perugino and various other 15th-century artists.

    One particularly interesting section spotlights a series of mosaics in Rome’s American church, St Paul within the Walls, completed by Edward Burne-Jones in 1850. A series of preparatory sketches and designs for the project, rarely displayed publicly, are also on show. The exhibition runs at the Ravenna Museum of Art until June 6, and then at the Ashmolean Museum from September 15 until December.


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  5. Great article! I find that Millais had a very interesting life and a strange evolution to his painting. I guess one could say that about all the Pre-Raphaelites though, ha ha ha. And thank you very much for including my post under “Related Articles.” 🙂 Best regards, G. E.


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