Sir John Everett Millais renders his Portrait of a Girl (Sophie Gray) -- a study of his sister-in-law -- with the same attention to detail and emotional character that he uses in his other landscapes and portraiture. The subject occupies an uncharacteristically large portion of the picture plane, confronting viewers with her ice-blue gaze, pallid complexion, and lush red lips. Her long brown hair frames her face and creates a stark contrast with the dark background and her white skin, which Millais paints in an almost entirely ivory tone with the exception of the girl's rosy cheeks. A subtle light illuminates the left side of her face, accentuating her hair's golden and auburn highlights. although presumably a woman of rank, Sophie Gray wears non-descript clothing -- a dark garment, rather plainly adorned with an embroidered heart with three flowers within it.
Despite the relative simplicity of the scene, Millais endows the image with emotional power and meaning through his manipulation of tonal values and through his unique positioning of his subject. The vibrant, contrasting colors command the viewer's attention. Millais enhances Sophie Gray's natural beauty with the carefully blended pink and red hues of her cheeks and lips. Such beauty, combined with her direct gaze, her slightly upturned chin, and her close proximity to the picture plane make her an almost intimidating figure. As a result of Millais's expert painting technique, she commands respect and asserts herself as a woman of dignity and rank.
1. Millais used typological symbolism in many of his paintings. For example, in another one of his studies of a girl, entitled The Blind Girl, the painter included objects and visual clues, such as a rainbow symbolizing the coming of Christ and a butterfly as an emblem of the soul, to heighten the meaning of the scene for viewers. Do you think that the absence of such symbolic elements makes Millais's portrait of Sophie Gray any less meaningful? Does it have more or less emotional resonance with viewers than a more elaborate narrative scene?
2. Why do you think Millais chose to position Sophie Gray so close to the viewer?
3. Perhaps the most startling element of the painting is Sophie Gray's bright red lips, a feature traditionally associated with seduction. Considering Sophie Gray's young age and her familial relation to the painter, why do you think Millais chose to intensify the hue of her lips?
4. Having painted predominantly narrative scenes early in his career, Millais increasingly focused on portraiture in his later works. What might have inspired this transition?
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