Sir John Everett Millais: Child Prodigy
Millais (1829-1896) was only eleven years old when he was accepted into Britain’s Royal Academy Schools. He was born in Southampton, England but raised by a wealthy family native to the small channel island of Jersey. He spent his childhood there and began drawing when he was four years old.
In 1840, he was accepted into the Royal Academy Schools, a prestigious institution that is also the oldest arts school in the U.K. In 1843, he won a silver medal for a sketch. Four years later, he levelled up to a gold medal for his painting, The Tribe of Benjamin Seizing the Daughters of Shiloh (c.1847).
During his time at the Royal Academy, he met William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rosetti. They all wanted to turn away from traditional rules and techniques they were learning in their courses. So together, they formed a secret society called the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB).
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: An Art Rebellion
What didn’t the Pre-Raphaelite’s like about the Royal Academy’s style? It encouraged a strict, mechanical approach to art, teaching students to follow the Classical style, which prized realism alongside perfectionism. But the pre-Raphaelites didn’t want to focus on textbook details. Instead, they wanted to make art – heartfelt. To them, the general atmosphere and feeling you got from a painting was more important. They were especially inspired by medieval art that came before one of the Renaissance’s four biggest artists, Raphael (1483-1520).
This translated to art that focused on Biblical stories, mythology, and literature. See below Millais’ Landmark Works: Early PRB to see three key examples of his work that tell stories from the Bible, Shakespeare, and poetry. To help recreate famous scenes in stories, some Pre-Raphaelites incorporated ethereal natural elements into the picture.
The floral and whimsical style of Pre-Raphaelite art majorly influenced writer Oscar Wilde. Wilde promoted the aestheticism movement, which promoted the idea of creating “art for art’s sake”. He also wrote about Biblical subjects and myths, such as in his tragic play Salomé. But visually, the curling, creative style of the PRB helped shape Aestheticism’s beautiful fashion and art.
Millais’ Landmark Works: Early PRB
Millais was only nineteen years old when he painted this piece. It was inspired by John Keats’ 1818 poem, Isabella or The Pot of Basil, which was adapted from Boccaccio’s collection of novellas, Decameron. One novella tells the story of Isabella, a young woman betrothed to a wealthy noble. However, she falls in love with her brothers’ apprentice instead. In the painting, Lorenzo looks at Isabella on the right of the table. Across from them, you can see her brothers’ suspicious eyes. This way, Millais foreshadowed the next part of her story.
Scholars consider this as Millais’ first Pre-Raphaelite style painting. Visually, they say that the stiff angles and flat dimensions seem to be taken from early Italian paintings. Besides its appearance, its symbolism also challenges popular Victorian thought. The Victorians encouraged modesty, but some people see phallic symbols in Isabella. People aren’t certain why he might have included this imagery, but it still defied the sexually-silent mindset of the time.
Christ in the House of his Parents (1850)
Millais like Caravaggio showed Biblical figures like Jesus and Mary as ordinary people. This painting is about Jesus’ childhood, showing him in his father, Joseph’s, carpentry house. Notice the rolls of wood scattered across the floor, Mary on her knees, and John the Baptist shyly looking from the right.
Charles Dickens criticized this work by saying Jesus looked like, “a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-haired boy in a night-gown”, while Mary was, “so hideous in her ugliness that … she 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.” Despite its controversy, it’s one of the artist’s best recognized pieces.
Ophelia might be Millais’ most famous work. It shows the character from Shakespeare’s Hamlet drowning herself after learning that her beau killed her father. When it was first exhibited to the public, many critics hated it because they thought her expression didn’t do her suffering justice. They also thought that the natural surroundings distracted from the central part of the story.
Fans regard this piece as a great example of Pre-Raphaelite work because of its natural, complex composition, its use of color, detail, and narrative. Millais did put a lot of effort into making sure viewers could recognize each flower. He tried to name each plant in a letter from July 28th, 1851, explaining,
“… in answer to your botanical inquiries, the flowering rush grows most luxuriantly along the banks of the river here, and I shall paint it in the picture [Ophelia]. The other plant named I am not sufficiently learned in flowers to know. There is the dog-nose, river-daisy, forget-me-not, and a kind of soft, straw-colored blossom (with the word ‘sweet’ in its name)…”
Similarly Picasso or Monet, Millais’ work inspired other artists to break conventional artistic norms. He continued to produce art for a long career, with up to 107 paintings. Today, you can see Ophelia alongside some of his other major works (i.e. Christ in the House of his Parents) at the Tate gallery, London.