Sir John Everett Millais paints a tense but ambiguous confrontation in The Ransom 1860-2: a knight cautiously hands over jewels to a group of captors, while his daughters rush to embrace him. The painting presents great difficulty both because of its unclear narrative and its lack of solid grounding within Millais's oeuvre. Millais applies stylistic elements of the early Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the attention to pattern and composition found in aestheticism, and themes from his own popular historical paintings. Contemporary buyers and critics were largely confused by this mix: they wanted the drama of his historical paintings and were upset by the painting's vagueness so characteristic of aestheticism. The tepid reception of the painting seemed to push Millais to abandon this course — he never again applied hard-edged Pre-Raphaelite painting to historical subjects.
Early Pre-Raphaelite Influence
Millais, D.G. Rossetti and William Holman Hunt founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848, arguably the most important British art movement of the nineteenth century. Though the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood lasted only a few years, its characteristic style clearly shows in The Ransom's even lighting and naturalistic detail. But the painting's lack of emotion and historical or literary setting, coupled with its rich colors and elaborate composition, point to the emergence of a new movement grown out of early Pre-Raphaelitism. Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones explored the notion that a painting's beauty alone justified its existence, or the idea of aestheticism. The Ransom cannot be understood without considering the influences of both early and late forms of Pre-Raphaelitism.
The Ransom keeps with early Pre-Raphaelitism in its opposition to academic tradition. Millais illuminates the scene evenly in the maner of early Renaissance painting, with precise attention to detail throughout. He draws attention to the central figure of the knight without use of focused light or a compositional pyramid. Rather than a pyramidal composition (typical of Raphael and the precepts of the Royal Academy schools), Millais arranges all of the figures almost in a single plane. The gazes of the other figures, the compositional line from the hound through the arms of the family members, the knight's armor, and his slight height advantage all indicate the knight as the piece's focal point. It is these stylistic elements to which Spielmann was most likely referring when felt there was "just as much Pre-Raphaelitism left in as may fill it with the interest which otherwise, save for the children, we might not feel for it (62)."
The early Pre-Raphaelites, under the guidance of John Ruskin, attempted to paint truth naturally while employing elaborate sybolism drawn from sources as varied as Hogarth and biblical interpretation. The old Pre-Raphaelite naturalism here appears in the application of hard-edged photographic realism to live models and to the use of an historically accurate setting and supposedly authentic clothing. According to Millais's wife Effie, when preparing for The Ransom,
most of the costumes were made by me, and I designed them from a book on costume lent by Lady Eastlake. The Tapestry...was done in the unfinished section of the South Kensington Museum...." Millais had to draw from two different models for the head of the knight and modeled his body on a railway guard named "Strong." The girls are drawn from a Miss Helen Petrie and the page from a boy named Reid. [Millais 365-56]
The Art-Journal review noted that "the lower limbs have not received that attention which the artist has been accustomed to carry into his best works." Several brushstrokes are visible along the legs of the page. This could indicate either sloppiness on Millais's part in his attempt to save time and effort, or a subtle move away from the all-around hard-edged realism of the early Pre-Raphaelites. Otherwise, in the words of the same review, Millais paints "perfectly."
The sixteenth-century setting and chivalrous theme of the painting point to the early Pre-Raphaelite fascination with medievalism. Taking inspiration from Keats, Tennyson and Shakespeare, the early Pre-Raphaelites saw medieval settings as canvases onto which they could project their critiques of modern society. Though The Ransom lacks a moralistic punch line, it may still be seen as Millais's addition to a long line of works from the Victorian mid-nineteenth century on the subject of family, the status of women, and the responsibilities of a patriarch. Augustus Leopold Egg — an associate of the Pre-Raphaelites — painted his Past and Present series in 1858. In the second scene in the series, we see "the abandoned daughters" in a destitute situation brought about by their mother's adultery. The Ransom may be seen as a sort of medieval foil to Egg's Victorian moral warning: a morally simplistic rescue story in which the viewer easily sympathizes with the family.
The Ransom breaks from the early Pre-Raphaelites in favor of aesthetic principles in its ambiguous setting and emphasis on design over emotion. Millais often set his historical paintings of the 1850s against a backdrop of a well-known conflict or battle; The Ransom, on the other hand, is scene of his own invention. Aesthetes sometimes intentionally choose subjects lacking historical or literary context, or else take great artistic liberties with the subjects. Rather than the plot and drama of the story, the paintings focus on detailed drapery and pattern. The Ransom resembles Burne-Jones in pieces such as The Madness of Sir Tristram, also 1862, and later The Baleful Head 1886-7, in terms of sense of space, attention to pattern and reserved emotions.
The tapestry in the background, painted from the Flemish La Main Chaude 1500-1515 (Tate 114-5), places the action of The Ransom sometime in the sixteenth century But Millais does not emphasize the content of the tapestry or its contribution to the meaning of the action. La Main Chaude shows a group of shepherds playing a game — "hot hands" — while their flock runs about unattended. A fox at the left side of the painting looks at them hungrily. It might be that Millais attempts to provide a subtle plot background for the action taking place, suggesting that the knight's neglect led to the daughters' kidnap in the first place. But one cannot read this plot from the small portion Millais paints in The Ransom. This inclusion of a large ambiguous element defies both his contemporary reviewers — such as the Art-Journal — and the early Pre-Raphaelites, who would have filled every aspect of the painting with meaning.
Left to right: Mariana, Christ in the House of His Parents, and The Woodman's Daughter. [Click on thumbnails for larger images and additional information.]
The tapestry encloses the central figures in a confined space, going against early Pre-Raphaelite emphasis on nature. Millais's Mariana 1850-51 and Christ in the House of His Parents 1849-50 both show more typical early Pre-Raphaelite compositions: though the action takes place in interior spaces, the viewer may glimpse the outdoors through a window or door. This early Pre-Raphaelite compositional scheme emphasizing depth derives from works like Tintoretto's Annunciation 1582-7, on which John Ruskin wrote, and the early Dutch masters like Van Eyck. Other early pieces by Millais such as The Woodman's Daughter 1850-1 and Ophelia show the central figures surrounded by nature. To contrast, the apple blossoms in Millais's Spring1856-9 function much like the tapestry in The Ransom, "block[ing] all vision in a decorative and compressing effect (Tate 136)." The difficulty he had in selling Spring shows that buyers were not interested in Millais's new aesthetic direction.
Millais's contemporaries looked in The Ransom for the same energy shown in The Order of Release (1852-53) or the tenderness of A Huguenot (1851-52). Two of the four sketches for The Ransom in the Royal Academy collection show a watermark of 1853, which in fact suggests that the painting may have been intended as a pendant to The Order of Release (Warner 490). Millais originally sketched the knight looking downwards at his daughters as he embraced them with both arms. In this original composition, the viewer focuses on reunification of the family, as in The Order, rather than the tense confrontation of the finished picture. Millais's choice to change the glance of the father is a surprising one. Instead of a more isolated family unit in the finished painting, we have a very intricate play of glances and gestures. The viewer follows the knight's apprehensive glare to the kidnapper still holding on to the girls, and then to the knight's hand gripping the jewels and the man reaching for them. Millais sacrifices the sentimentality of the reunion in order to draw the viewer's attention to his intricate composition and carefully painted hands, expressions and clothes.
Millais became somewhat of a populist after his early Pre-Raphaelite period, and paid great attention to the successes of his contemporaries. At the same time, he convinced himself that his position was "established [underlined three times] beyond all doubt (Fleming 181)," allowing him leverage to explore new areas. Millais followed the work of "aesthetes like Rossetti and Frederic Leighton, the latter of whom Millais was keenly aware as a rival. . ." (Tate 115). His choice to incorporate the aesthetes' emphasis on pattern and intricate composition into his work shows his awareness of their popularity and his potential to profit from it. It seems otherwise inexplicable that he would attempt to create a medieval scene from his imagination without the clear plot that characterized his other paintings of the same time.
But Millais's attempt at aestheticism in its pure form had already proved a failure. In 1859 Millais had great difficulty selling the two major works he exhibited, Spring and The Vale of Rest. Critics thought the women in each ugly; they did not understand the paintings' themes (or, possibly, lack of themes); buyers were discouraged by the attacks (Fleming 177). Millais declared in a letter to his wife, referring to his work that year, "these pictures have been such torments to me that I want to wipe their memory from my mind for ever" (Fleming 183). The two paintings were perhaps the most daring he had attempted since his famous Autumn Leaves, but upon their failure to sell, he was driven back to the historical paintings for which he could easily find buyers.
In the view of Michael Cohen, writing on women in Victorian art and literature, "Millais made a career out of rescue pictures" (Cohen 92), images of chivalrous men comforting distressed lovers. Millais in fact complained that "Whatever I do, no matter how successful, it will always be the same story, "why don't you give us the Huguenot again?" Biographer G.H. Fleming believes that Millais's "principal stimulation for [The Ransom] was perhaps the enormous sum Hunt got for his historical painting (Fleming 198). " Hunt's The Finding of Christ in the Temple, produced from his six years of study in Jerusalem, sold for the enormous sum of £5,500.
The hound in the lower right of The Ransom has counterparts in The Order of Release and The Black Brunswicker 1859-60. In each case, the dog reflects the mood of the scene: a joyful dog leaps up at the reunited family in Order, while the dog in Brunswicker "pathetically echoes [the woman's] silent plea (Tate 112)." The dog in The Ransom, reflecting the staid emotions of the painting itself, looks up towards the knight with quiet apprehension and expectance. In addition, Millais's inclusion of the dog acts as a hint that The Ransom indeed belongs in the same genre as his other popular historical paintings.
Millais thought The Ransom would be quite successful, pricing the piece at £1,000. Millais at this point was perhaps the most popular painter in Britain, and his Black Brunswicker from a year before sold for 1,000 guineas, "the highest price a work of his had yet commanded (Tate 113)." (The immensely popular A Huguenot of a decade before fetched just £250).
But despite interest by several potential buyers while Millais painted The Ransom, once completed the painting did not immediately sell. After a few months, it was "bought by Gambart, probably just before the Royal Academy exhibition opened in 1862." The ambiguous nature of its subject and the difficulty of placing it within Millais's oeuvre confused or disappointed many of his contemporary reviewers. Former Pre-Raphaelite William Michael Rossetti said of it: "this work would be a triumph for a painter other than Mr. Millais" (Rossetti 223-24). The Athenaeum review of the painting in the 1862 Royal Academy Exhibition, along similar lines, said that it "does not please us so well as its companions (Stephens 602)." The Art-Journal review of the same show expressed confusion at the narrative of the painting, complaining that
there must be much that the painter has failed to express. If the children are not under the paternal roof, the anxiety of the father and brother cannot be accounted for, nor can the pertinacity of the man who still holds the children. The picture to which this directly points is ÔThe Order for Release,' but it falls far short of the finish and clearness of that picture... [Art-Journal 129-30]
The painting's poor reception shows a miscalculation: "although with hindsight, we might view such developments in terms of a nascent aestheticism, more immediately Millais risked placing himself at odds with the demands of the marketplace (Tate 73)." The Ransom proved to be the last of the intimate historical pictures Millais painted with hard-edged realism.
Accompanying The Ransom in the 1862 Royal Academy Exhibition were Millais's Trust Me and a couple of smaller works. Trust Me resembles the drama of A Huguenot and The Black Brunswicker , and was more popular among critics. This discrepancy in reviews might be attributed to The Ransom's lack of passion and moral complexity. The knight's choice to ransom his daughters is clear-cut, unlike the Huguenot's or the Brunswicker's choices to go to battle. It is no surprise that the Art-Journal, attempting to read The Ransom along the same lines as these others, was disappointed.
Fleming, G.H. John Everett Millais: A Biography. (London: 1998
Cohen, Michael. Sisters: Relations and Rescue in Nineteenth-Century British Novel and Paintings. (Madison: 1995), 92, 94.
Landow, George P. William Holman Hunt and Typological Symbolism. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.
Millais, John G. Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais. 1899
Millais, exh. cat. London: Tate Britain, 2008.
"The Royal Academy Exhibition," 1862. The Art-Journal 24 (June 1, 1862).
Rossetti, William Michael. Fine Arts, Chiefly Contemporary. London: 1867.
Spielmann, M.H. Millais and His Works, with Special Reference to the Exhibition at the Royal Academy. Edinburgh and London: 1898).
Stephens, F.G. "Fine Arts Royal Academy." The Athenaeum, 1801 (3 May 1862).
Warner, Malcolm John. "The Professional Career of John Everett Millais to 1863, with a catalogue of works to the same date." Ph.D. dissertation. London University: 1985.
Last modified 2 August 2008