Sir John Millais's transitional work, A Dream of the Past — Sir Isumbras at the Ford (1857), depicts an ancient knight carrying two children of a poor woodcutter across a river on horseback. The character of Sir Isumbras derives from a 14th-century English romance, but this specific incident does not occur in the medieval poem. Rather, when exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1857 the painting bore a quotation from a pseudo-medieval romance by Millais's friend, the art critic Tom Taylor, who wrote a fake medieval verse explaining the story. While Millais painted the horse out of proportion with the figures, the flatness created by the compositional distance between the foreground and background, the specific facial expressions, and the detail on the figures' clothing makes the work identifiable as Pre-Raphaelite. The massive black plane created by the larger than life horse makes the three figures seem to almost float above its back, as if someone cut and pasted them into the scene. The girl, especially, stands out as she faces directly towards us, while the knight looks forward and the young boy sadly looks out of the picture frame, towards the viewer. In contrast, the moody background done with looser brushstrokes and the sentimental nature of the subject prefigures Millais's future departure from the Pre-Raphaelite style.
1. Ruskin denounced the picture, calling it "not merely a fall — it is a catastrophe," and a print by Frederick Sandys caricatured it by showing Hunt, Millais, and Rossetti riding a donkey. Critics condemned the horse as too large and the composition as awkward. Do you agree with Ruskin — does the picture remain a failure? Was Millais aware of the proportional problems and the tension in the composition, or did he intend it?
2. Many admire the loose and fluid background that captures the fleeting effect of twilight as the painting's best asset. How does it contrast with Millais's earlier backgrounds, such as that of The Blind Girl? Why did he choose to paint the background of A Dream in a different style?
3. Does the dark mood of the painting created by the background add meaning to the image? Does Millais's use of twilight in this scene signify the same kind of transience as it expressed in Autumn Leaves? Does Millais use twilight and the contrast between the ancient figure of the knight and the young children to suggest a deeper message about the end of the knight's quest and the transience of youth or worldly deeds?
Millais, John Guile. The Life and Letters of John Everett Millais, President of the Royal Academy. 2 vols. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1899.
Wood, Chrisopher. The Pre-Raphaelites. New York: Studio/Viking, 1981
Last modified 27 September 2004