Millais' favorite picture from his oeuvre, The Order of Release upsets all traditional concepts of gender roles in the domestic sphere. The painting depicts a wounded Jacobin Highlander in the arms of his wife, released from prison by her intervention. She hands the release papers to the redcoat guard at the door with one hand, and cradles her child in the other. Millais designates primary power to the woman in this picture, contrasting the typically passive female figure he features in many of his paintings. From his drowning Ophelia to his morose Mariana, Millais' women tend to lack resolve, agency, and backbone. That all changes here, where the woman provides the emotional and physical balance to the picture.
The Order of Release focuses on Millais' concern with "love and duty" (Barlow, 48), but reverses his traditional representation of the theme. As opposed to picture like A Hugeunot and The Black Brunswicker, The Order of Release pictures a scene where duty gives way to love, not the other way around.
Millais focuses on the figures and their interactions, leaving the background a dark, muted tone with a few textured brushstrokes. By contrast to the aforementioned love scenes, where the background plays as important a role as the activity of the foreground, The Order of Release is a comparatively one-dimensional picture. Millais abandons his former focus on filling the composition to the brim with subtle symbols and visual enhancements. Instead, he dwells on fleshing out these figures in as realistic a manner as possible, lending drama to the scene and credibility to his representation.
While Millais always tended toward accuracy of his own accord, The Order of Release demonstrates the photorealistic influence of earlier artists. Carravaggio's chiarascuro effect appears to have affected Millais' stark contrasts, his brightest whites accentuated by a dark background. Additionally, the influence of seventeenth-century Dutch artists seems to have taken hold in Millais' rendering of the figures, their creamy skin reminiscent of Rubens, their stunningly realistic clothing in the manner of Vermeer, and the lay-out of the composition echoing scenes by Rembrandt.
Each figure tells a story through elements of his or her appearance. Of special interest is the facial expression of the wife, the only figure looking straight-on at the viewer. M.H. Spielmann describes
the quiet smile of the woman — an undemonstrative but profound joy, in sharp contrast with her husband's unstrung outburst. Lady Millais, who was two years afterwards to become his wife, good-naturedly stood for the woman, and it is one of the best portraits ever executed of her.
The wife's expression carries the emotional weight of the piece, drawing the viewer in as a means of relating to the characters and their situation. The other figures, by contrast, avert their eyes from the viewer and from each other. The wife holds their small child in her left arm, his red hair a study in complementary colors against the bright blue of her robe. He holds a small yellow flower in his hand whose petals have fallen to the floor, tracing his mother's steps to the door. Perhaps this flower was a token of greeting for his father, perhaps a symbol for the child's youth. Both father and son rest their heads on the mother's shoulder, their red hair flanking her blue robe. She therefore plays three roles in this piece: as the provider of comfort for her son, consolation for her husband, and the order of release for the red-coated officer.
As with many of Millais' pictures, hands play an important role in symbolizing the role of the figure on which they are portrayed. The Order of Release proves no exception. The young child shows his palms outturned, his hands relaxed, representative of his complete repose as he leans on his mother's shoulder. The husband touches his young son with one hand, and holds his wife's hand with his injured other, drawing strength from her grasp. The wife's hands demonstrate the action of the piece: the left, welcoming her husband home, the right, handing the papers which make the order of release possible. The officer receives the note in one hand, and maintains the grip of his prison keys in the other, a gimmick likely employed as an indicator of his professional role, and the narrative of the scene.
Animals add another layer to many of Millais' pictures. From the symbolism of the birds in The Ruling Passion to the small dog pawing at its owners in The Black Brunswicker, the artist chooses animals that will enhance the scene in symbolism and emotion. In The Order of Release, Millais paints a large collie jumping up unknowingly upon his returned owner. He turns his face toward the woman, just another indication of who holds the reigns in this image. Millais depicts the dog standing on his hind legs, leaning on his returned owner, balancing the weight distribution of the central cluster of figures. An ironic juxtaposition, the dog's unbridled joy contrasts the otherwise dramatic quality of the scene.
Millais' photorealism upset many of his viewers at first, who could not see the point of rendering such a strange picture with such precision. In fact, it suits the genre of this piece, enhancing its life-likeness and suggesting that the scene actually occurred. According to Speilmann,
So great was Millais' passion for accuracy that he obtained a genuine order of release . . . and so faithfully did he copy it that the late Colonel Turner, the Governor's son, who knew nothing of the matter, recognized with surprise his father's signature in the picture as he walked through the gallery in which it was exhibited. 
Millais' photorealism, especially his attention to flesh, furthers the theme of male shame in this picture, where "the stress on fleshiness is a way of making the shamefaced condition of male desires and demands more clearly apparent and more disturbing, as it also implicates the male viewer" (Barlow, 50). Had the picture been meant for a predominantly female audience, Millais may have paid more attention to fleshing out the setting rather than the figures; instead, he leaves the background visibly untreated, giving no visual cues of a welcoming domestic interior.
Male shame figured into reactions to this painting as well as into the painting itself. Upon its exhibition, some suggested that the release was made possible by the wife's offering of sexual favors to the guard. (Barlow, 48). The painting lacks any evidence that this occurred, save for the fact that she delivers the paper with no explanation. I believe this suggestion demonstrates male discomfort with a woman in power. Male shame draws from a few elements of the piece: the implied shame of the futility of the 1745 Rebellion, the helplessness of the husband in circumstance and in health, and the role of the woman as provider and comforter. Any suggestion she made the release possible by sexual favors demonstrates a sexist assertion that she could not enable the action by her own capability. Though the picture serves more as a study of human interaction than a plug for women's power, he points to some important issues of gender and the roles within it.
John Everett Millais was said to have gone astray in his artistic career, letting go of his vision in favor of fortune. William Morris famous dismissed Millais as "a genius bought and sold and thrown away" ("The Exhibition of the Royal Academy"). Despite a gradual change in subject matter, tending more toward portraiture for commercial success, Millais' work stands to reason the genius behind it possessed great talent in artistry and originality. His paintings, while they demonstrate technical ability unsurpassed, are studies of the emotions of the figures they depict. Whether he illustrates a scene of classical narrative or a vision of everyday life, Millais approaches his paintings with a sensitivity to the human condition.
Related Discussions of Millais by the Same Author
- "Aweary" and Waiting: John Everett Millais's Mariana
- Doomed and Decorated: Millais's Lovers and their Surroundings in The Black Brunswickers
- Knowledge and Family in Millais's The Ruling Passion
- Nudes and Knights: Millais's The Knight Errant
Baldry, A. Lys. Millais. New York: Frederick A. Stokes.
Barlow, Paul. Time Present and Time Past: The Art of John Everett Millais. Great Britain: Biddles Ltd, King's Lynn, 2005.
Bennett, Mary. Walker Art Gallery. Millais: An Exhibition Organized by the Walker Art Gallery Liverpool and the Royal Academy of Arts London, Jan-Apr 1967. London: Royal Academy, 1967.
Morris, William. "The Exhibition of the Royal Academy." Today July 1884, 1:236. As quoted in Debora Mancoff. John Everett Millais: Beyond the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
Speilmann, M.H. Millais and His Works. London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1898.
Last modified 15 May 2007