About the book
John Everett Millais (1829–1896) was one of the most significant English painters of the nineteenth century, successful and respected during his career, honoured as the first painter to be created a baronet, he remains, as recent exhibitions of his work have demonstrated, equally well known today.
Whilst his substantial contributions are rarely, if ever, denied, in past art historical accounts of Millais’s long career there has been an unfortunate tendency to superficially distinguish between the early promise of his Pre-Raphaelite masterpieces and the perceived commercial and traditionalist orientation of his later works.
In this new study of the artist’s life and work Rosenfeld argues that such readings are far from accurate, demonstrating that the development of Millais’s art was at the forefront of contemporary painting throughout his life. At the same time as Manet and Monet were liberating their nation’s art from traditional forms and subjects, Millais was leading British art with the bravura manner and looser symbolic associations of Aestheticism (the most important movement after Pre-Raphaelitism), which in turn influenced the portraits of John Singer Sargent and the landscapes of Vincent Van Gogh. In Rosenfeld’s words, it is a ‘consistently relevant and inventive Millais’ that emerges in this book.
Millais’s lifetime saw radical transformations in art, and his productive career is uniquely representative of the development of the modern artist. From an early age Millais displayed a great natural talent for drawing and was accepted in to the Royal Academy of Arts, aged 11, as its youngest ever student. He flourished there, and was popular among his fellow students. It was also the start of a lifelong association with the nation’s most distinguished art institution; an involvement that would reach its pinnacle with his election as the Academy’s President in the year of his death.
In 1848, along with William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Millais was catapulted in to the artistic limelight due to his participation in the formation of the radical Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Gathering great notoriety as a group for their committed reworking of the European tradition, the paintings produced by the young Millais during this period received substantial critical interest and public attention.
Included amongst those discussed in detail by the author are ‘Isabella’ (1849), ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’ (1850) and ‘Ophelia’ (1851-2); compositions which are recognised today as some of the most ambitious and beautiful paintings produced in Britain in the nineteenth century.
The finale of Millais’s Pre-Raphaelite phase was significantly represented by the artist’s portrait of the leading critic of the day, John Ruskin. As the author discusses in revealing detail, not only did the painting turn out to be one of the artist’s most challenging commissions, the circumstances that surrounded its production had a considerable affect on the direction that Millais’s personal and professional life would take, not least in his marriage to Ruskin’s former wife, Effie.
As Rosenfeld demonstrates, by the mid 1950s Millais reputation was clearly in the ascendency. Not only was he securing a wider public for his best-known images through the employment of the most up to date printing techniques, his painting were now being exhibited on an international stage. He also contributed to the boom in wood-engraved book and magazine publishing, and included amongst those discussed by Rosenfeld, are his successful illustrations for a series of novels by Anthony Trollope.
In parallel to these projects, and with the assistance of his new wife, Millais became established as one of the country’s leading portrait painters. Among the notable figures that sat for him were Thomas Carlyle, William Gladstone, Benjamin Disraeli, Lillie Langtry, Alfred Tennyson and Henry Irving, as well as many society ladies and children.
Although such paintings led to him becoming one of the wealthiest and most celebrated artist of his time, as the author reveals, the resulting work load and pressure would lead the artist to search for periods of artistic reflection in his regular visits to Scotland. With the portraits and history themes that he painted in London positioning him at the forefront of the Aesthetic movement in Britain, as Rosenfeld perceptively shows, the landscapes completed north of the border revealed a different, yet no less modern, trajectory in his work. Painted out of doors, these large scale, distinctly non-picturesque landscapes are shown to be amongst the artist’s greatest achievements.
As the book effectively illustrates and concludes, not only are these paintings the result of an artist working with great technical skill and experience, they reveal that as Millais aged his artistic ambition did not diminish.