John Everett Millais's Autumn Leaves stands as a tribute to fleeting beauty. His subject is a simple scene: four young women burn leaves as autumn passes into winter and day into night. The pile of leaves predominates in the painting's foreground. Even in this large mound, each leaf remains distinct in its own brown, green, red, or gold hue, all in precise detail that seems to come out of the Ruskinian tradition. The four young women surround a particularly golden leaf teetering on the edge of a basket as they work to burn the leaves. Each figure wears fairly muted colored clothing (though one can still make out the fine details on each dress), with the exception of the youngest girl. Her red cheeks, red scarf, and red apple stand out as the brightest colors in the painting. After absorbing the richness of color and detail of the women and the leaf pile, one begins to notice the more ephemeral-looking parts of the painting: a cloud of smoke floats away from the leaf pile, while distant clouds similarly move across the sky, and leaves (curiously blending into the painting's middle ground) fall from the oldest woman's hands.
1. Millais's painting constitutes a move away from the depiction, popular among the Pre-Raphaelites, of specific religious or literary scenes, as Malcolm Warner notes in the Tate Catalogue. It is also a departure from the strict use of types. Is Autumn Leaves more or less effective for its lack of a pre-existing narrative? What narrative elements remain to convey the fleeting nature of life that Millais seems to have been considering while he painted this work?
2. Compare the parts of the painting that seem to be in motion -- the smoke, the clouds, and the falling leaves -- with the rather frozen poses and expressions of the young women. What message does this contrast convey? Does it reinforce or contradict Warner's hypothesis that we are meant to view the women's beauty as fleeting?
3. Finally, examine the darkest part of the painting's foreground -- the oldest girl's hand. Why did Millais not include more detail in the painting of her hand and the leaves that fall from it? What does this blending of the background and foreground suggest?
- Millais's Melancholic Beauty in Autumn Leaves
- Nostalgic Intensity in Millais's in Autumn Leaves
- Mortality, Purity, and Religious Contemplation in Autumn Leaves
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.
Last modified 28 September 2004