John Everett Millais, R.A. (1829 – 1896) was Great Britain’s Golden Boy; he had begun his studies at the Royal Academy when he was only eleven years old and first exhibited there with a painting he completed at sixteen: Pizarro Seizing the Inca of Peru. Two years later, in 1848, he was one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and as he moved past that youthful rebellion, Millais was made a full member of the Royal Academy in 1863. But by 1870, Millais’ public was complaining that he was veering too much toward portraiture at the annual Royal Academy exhibitions.
This year, Millais pulled out all the stops; The Athenaeum called his works “unusually numerous and powerful” – six in all. And for the first [and only] time, Millais presented a painting of a nude woman. The life-sized The Knight Errant, painted in just six weeks, showed a knight in shining armor rescuing a nude maiden bound to a tree. The Athenaeum wrote, “the woman [clothed only in her golden hair] is not over pure in character or refined in expression, somewhat feverish looking.”
The Architect praised it to the skies: “Mr. Millais has this year reached a point to which he had never before attained,” called his Knight Errant, “a work which we have no hesitation in determining as the grandest that this artist has yet produced.” But Millais’ very realistic nude damsel-in-distress glancing demurely in the direction of her knight errant was offensive to many. Millais was considered by his countrymen to be “a great jolly Englishman…Anglo-Saxon from skin to core” — but even he could not get away with nudity involving a female perceived to be immodest and a male together on the same canvas. The Art Journal wrote that “the manner is almost too real for the treatment of the nude.” Weirdly, George Frederic Watts’ Fata Morgana, displayed by the side of this painting by Millais, didn’t cause similar consternation although it portrays a seduction; Watt’s nude sorceress of Arthurian legend is making direct eye contact with the knight, while he is eyeing her backside. Is the difference in the drapery, or purely in Millais’ skill at painting female flesh?
Millais’ youngest son and biographer, John Guille Millais (1865 – 1931), later called The Knight Errant “one of the finest examples of his art; and, to my mind, a more modest or more beautiful work was never limned; but the Pharisaic spirit of the age was against it. Mrs. Grundy was shocked, or pretended to be, and in consequence it remained long on the artist’s hands, no one daring to buy it. Millais originally painted the distressed lady who had been robbed, stripped, and bound by the thieves, as looking at the spectator, and I remember well this position of the head in the picture as it hung on the drawing-room walls at Cromwell Place; but after a while he came to the conclusion that the beautiful creature would look more modest if her head were turned away, so he took the canvas down and repainted it as we see it now.”
[In fact, Millais cut out the woman’s head and torso and sewed them into another canvas exhibited in 1872 as The Martyr of the Solway. Millais sold the revised, more modest version of the Knight Errant in 1874. The resulting position of the damsel’s head is reminiscent of Edward Poynter’s nude Andromeda, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1870.]
Millais, “never stronger than now” according to The Saturday Review, “paints the picture most talked about, that of The Marchioness of Huntly” – a life-sized wedding portrait of Amy, the daughter of the Conservative MP for East Cheshire, William Cunliffe-Brooks (1819 – 1900), who married Scottish Liberal politician Charles, 11th Marquis of Huntley (1847 – 1937) in 1869. The critic continued, “And yet the picture is rather too showy to stand well in the historic future; works of enduring reputation have usually an element of severity and profundity.” The Architect, however, persisted in its fulsome praise of Millais: “The Marchioness of Huntly is, to our thinking, the best portrait in the Academy.”
Millais also exhibited A Widow’s Mite and A Flood, a reference to Charles Reads’ 1870 novel Put Yourself in His Place, in which the reservoir dam bursts (as it did in Sheffield in 1864), wreaking destruction while one baby in its wooden cradle floats downstream. The Athenaeum approved: “It is impossible to find fault with this picture; in its way it is perfect.”
Millais’ The Boyhood of Raleigh was described in The Athenaeum as “a work of extraordinary power.” It depicts Sir Walter Raleigh, the Elizabethan explorer, as a boy captivated by the exotic tales of a sailor’ adventures. Millais credited his wife, Effie, for the young models: “She has been good enough to produce numerous attractive and cooperative models, as you see. Everett sat for Raleigh [on the left; he was 14], and George [who was 13] for the other boy.”
The Architect reported in May, 1870 that the paintings of Mr. Millais at this year’s Royal Academy earned him over £11,000, and that he was paid £2,000 for one of the two portraits he exhibited (likely the The Marchioness of Huntly rather than the smaller John Kelk *).
Charles Dickens died on June 9, 1870; of all the artists in Britain, it was Millais who drew a sketch of the great man on his death bed.
Millais’ father passed away on January 28, 1870, having lived to see the brilliant success of his son, now only 41 years old.
* John Kelk (1816-1886), an associate of Millais’ friend John Fowler, was a self-made civil engineering contractor who constructed projects including the 1851 Great Exhibition, the Victoria Station and Pimlico Railway, the Albert Memorial, Farringdon Street Station, the Smithfield Goods Depot and Meat Market. Kelk, who purchased Millais’ oil paintings, Swallow! Swallow! Flying South (1864) and The Minuet (1866), was the Conservative MP for Harwich from 1865-68. He was knighted in 1874.
© 2013 Lucy Paquette. All rights reserved.
Related blog post: Of Snobbery, Death & Parlormaids: Millais, Alma-Tadema & Whistler, 1869
Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848-1900
February 17–May 19, 2013 at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
The first major survey of the art of the Pre-Raphaelites to be shown in the United States features some 130 paintings, sculptures, works on paper, and decorative art objects.
For more information, visit http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/preraphaelites.shtm
Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity February 26 – May 27, 2013 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
A revealing look at the role of fashion in the works of the Impressionists and their contemporaries. Some eighty major figure paintings, seen in concert with period costumes, accessories, fashion plates, photographs, and popular prints, will highlight the vital relationship between fashion and art during the pivotal years, from the mid-1860s to the mid-1880s, when Paris emerged as the style capital of the world.
For more information, visit http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/upcoming-exhibitions
Illustrated with 17 stunning, high-resolution fine art images in full color
Courtesy of The Bridgeman Art Library
(295 pages; ISBN (ePub): 978-0-615-68267-9). See http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009P5RYVE.
Watch my new videos:
“The Strange Career of James Tissot” (2:33 minutes)
“Louise Jopling and James Tissot” (2:42 minutes)