One of Millais's early Pre-Raphaelite works Ferdinand Lured by Ariel, which he based on William Shakespeare's The Tempest, focuses on a scene where the fairy Ariel is leading Ferdinand to his master Prospero (Ripley). Millais brightened the highly saturated colors that were so characteristic of the PRB even further by painting on a pure white ground. It was his first painting done out of doors and one sees evidence of this in the meticulous amount of detail and attention paid to the grasses and greenery that surround Ferdinand. There is a great intensity of detail in the clumps of plants by his feet, which continues to the grasses and shrubs behind him. The figure of Ferdinand is pushed to the foreground of the painting, with one foot stepping forward, and his red tunic contrasts sharply with the green surroundings. His pointed shoes, tights and tunic are also painted with close attention to detail, particularly in the wrinkles of his tights around the ankles and knees.
Despite his attention to detail, an element of incoherence enters in the painter's treatment of the fairy Ariel and her relationship to the rest of the painting. We see her body, partly sheathed by her wings, floating by Ferdinand's ear while her companions form a ring around her, perhaps for protection. Millais paints this entire mass in a bright green that echoes the color of the grasses, but the lack of detail and perhaps the composition and positioning of their bodies creates a flattened image on the left side of the painting. Ferdinand bends his body forward, listening intently, and the fairy seems to be lifting off his cap so he can listen to her words more closely. However when one considers the relationship of the figures, Ferdinand's pose and the tilt of his head and neck as he leans forward appears awkward and unnatural. Ferdinand's bent position creates dark cast shadows on his clothing, but the modeling of the fairies does not have this sort of shading, and it almost seems as if their ethereal bodies could not cast such a dark shadow on his face. The resulting flat and surreal quality of Ariel and her sprites provides a dramatic contrast with the detail and clarity of Ferdinand's human form, and in some ways they do not seem to occupy the same picture plane.
1. The tension between the supernatural and the natural produces a mysterious and intriguing image, something we also saw in Hunt's Triumph of the Innocents. However, how does Millais's painting differ? Does he mean for this tension to arise or does he attempt to integrate the fairies and the figure of Ferdinand?
2. The PRB's attention to high detail and often evenly lit scenes sometimes results in a separation of different parts within the painting and a somewhat flattened image. Does the entire work reflect Millais's attention to fine detail? Does his treatment result in this effect? Do parts become separated and how so?
3. This painting exemplifies almost all of the basic elements of PRB painting, from the bright colors and photographic detail of the plants to the even lighting. However, as a painting based on Shakespeare, can one find any evidence of typological or magical symbolism or does it appear to be more of an illustration?
4. Originally commissioned by William Wethered, the dealer eventually refused to purchase the finished work (Schindler, Pre-Raphaelite Fairy Painting). Why do you think this painting did not appeal to him? What elements of the painting might have displeased Wethered?
Millais, John Guile. The Life and Letters of John Everett Millais, President of the Royal Academy. 2 vols. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1899.
The Pre-Raphaelites. London: Tate Gallery/Allen Lane, 1984. No. 32. P. 86.
Last modified 24 September 2004