Millais's Portrait of a Girl (Sophie Gray) is unlike the typical neoclassical portrait. Whereas the portraits of Academy-acclaimed artists such as Sir Joshua Reynolds posed members of the aristocracy to take full advantage of light and position, Millais depicts a middle-class girl gazing out at the viewer. Her dark hair merges with the equally dark background, leaving only her pale skin and the touch of lace at her throat as a stark contrast. The expression on her face is rather bewildering; although her eyes stare blankly, expressionless, her mouth is set with a defiant downturn, and her chin is tilted up determinedly. It is difficult to guess at Sophie's background, due to the lack of a background scene.
1. What exactly are the emotions on this girl's face? Is there in fact defiance? Did Millais want to convey a specific message by omitting a background, and thus also omitting symbols, clues, and narrative?
2. At the time this portrait was painted, women typically wore their hair bound up when they came of age and were considered adults. Sophie, however, has left her hair unbound, flowing freely over her shoulders and out of the viewer's sight, despite appearing to have reached the appropriate age. Is there any significance to this detail? Is this a symbol of an attempt at independence or defiance, or is it just an aesthetic choice Millais made while painting?
3. The Royal Academy would have disapproved of many aspects of this piece of art, including the depiction of a middle class girl and the lack of pyramidal grouping and spotlighting. What else would they have disapproved of? Are there any aspects of this painting they would have applauded?
4. Just as Millais disregarded many of the Royal Academy's rules for painting, he ignored many Pre-Raphelite guidelines in the creation of Portrait of a Girl. What would the PRB have liked about this painting?
5. Compare this portrait with Millais's Autumn Leaves of the same year. What does this comparison suggest as answers to the previous questions? How does the knowledge that the subject of the painting was related to Mrs. Millais change your view? In other words, what effect does your recognition of two different contexts of this work -- his other works and his personal life -- have on your reception and interpretation of it? [GPL]
Millais, John Guile. The Life and Letters of John Everett Millais, President of the Royal Academy. 2 vols. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1899.
Last modified 24 September 2004