Wednesday, February 22, 2017

John Everett Millais (1829-1896) - Mary Lin

John Everett Millais was one of the most celebrated and successful British artists of the 19th century. He was born in Southampton, England in 1829 into a moderately wealthy family that supported his artistic training from an early age. At age 11, he was the youngest pupil to enter the Royal Academy School in London, and subsequently became a star student, winning several awards for his drawings and paintings. In 1848, Millais became one of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s founding members, along with artists William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The group was inspired by paintings dating prior to the High Renaissance (~1500), and sought to rebel against the academic conventions taught by the British art establishment of the 19th century. Their style was characterized by the use of vibrant colors, fine attention to details, and complex compositions.

In the 1850s, Millais gained celebrity through his successes in book and periodical illustration, creating over 300 images in total. He also participated in the Aesthetic Movement in the 1860s, and in doing so contributed to a renewal of interest in decorative art of the 18th century. By 1870, he had established a successful business in portraiture, allowing him to achieve great wealth and status. Alongside his portraiture, Millais continued to produce a wide variety of paintings, including landscapes as well as those focusing on historical and religious subjects. After briefly serving as President of the Royal Academy, he passed away in 1896, and is buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Ophelia (1851-1852), oil on canvas

Ophelia is one of Millais’s most well known works from his Pre-Raphaelite period. The painting depicts a scene from Act IV of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which Ophelia drowns herself in a stream after Hamlet murders her father. From July to October of 1851, Millais spent up to eleven hours per day painting at a river in Surrey, and carefully observing the elements of nature that are included in the painting. The style of this painting was unique in that it depicted a Shakespearean character with an intense realism in a natural, rather than theatrical, setting.

Study of the Head of Elizabeth Siddal for 'Ophelia' (1852)

Ophelia also speaks to Millais’s great talent for portraiture. He has been observed to create portraits by placing the sitter and the canvas side by side to allow for more direct comparison, and his depiction of the sitter, Elizabeth Siddal, was praised for being the most accurate likeness of her ever made. His skill and sensitivity is also evident in the study of the head for Ophelia, shown above, a drawing that is complex and remarkable in its own right. It departs from traditional conventions of portraiture in that the subject’s gaze is diverted, and also highlights the unique qualities of the sitter, such as her pale eyelashes. 

The Crawley Family (1860), illustration for Anthony Trollope's Framley Parsonage

Millais produced the above illustration for Anthony Trollope's novel, Framley Parsonage. Millais and Trollope had a sustained collaboration, with Millais illustrating six of Trollope's novels. Millais is recognized for his skill and versatility in textual interpretation, which allowed his illustrations to enrich the written material. The Crawley Family exemplifies how Millais used symbolic details to support or add more dimension to the text. As noted by scholar Simon Cooke, its placement of the cradle at the base of the drawing and of Crawley at the top serves to highlight the journey from youth to adulthood, and the cycle of life.

Leisure Hours (1864), Oil on canvas

Leisure Hours is considered to be one of Millais’s contributions to the Aesthetic Movement, and reflects his interest in abstract beauty. The painting depicts Marion and Anne Pender as part of an arrangement of decorative and beautiful objects. Close attention is paid to the ornamental details, such as the lace trim and red velvet of the dresses, the green textile floor, and the Spanish leather screen in the background. 

Louise Jopling-Rowe (1879), Oil on canvas

Though this portrait was created after his time in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, it still shows traces of Pre-Raphaelite influence in its refusal to flatter and idealize the subject. Unlike that of other portraitists of the time, Millais’s works are not theatrical or flamboyant, but rather use reserved poses and pay closer attention to the sitter’s individuality.
I chose to study Millais because I am fascinated by the coupling of the beauty and skill of his portraiture with his lush, decorative depictions of the surrounding environment. I first became interested in his work after seeing Ophelia at the Tate Britain in London, which impressed me with the ethereal quality imparted on its sitter, as well as the intricately detailed and delicate renderings of the natural setting. The complexity of Millais's compositions brings a multi-dimensionality to his paintings that is particularly compelling. It is also interesting to me how his work challenges artistic conventions in portraiture, particularly through its nuanced realism and focus on the sitter's idiosyncrasies. 


Cooke, Simon. "John Everett Millais as an Illustrator — Significant Gesture, Expressive Line, and Emblematic Detail." The Victorian Web. 11 Nov. 2009. Web <>.

Cruise, Colin. Pre-Raphaelite Drawing. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2011. Print.

Riding, Christine. John Everett Millais. London: Tate, 2006. Print.

Goldman, Paul. John Everett Millais : Illustrator and Narrator. Eds. Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery, Leighton House, and Tessa Sidey. Aldershot, Hampshire: Lund Humphries 2004. Print.

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