The most brilliant and technically advanced painter in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was undoubtedly John Everett Millais. He entered the Royal Academy as a child prodigy and shortly after won a silver medal at the age of nine. Between 1850 and 1860 he produced the most realistic and stunning pictures of the PRB including not exclusively Ophelia (1852), Mariana (1851), The Blind Girl (1856), the famous portrait of John Ruskin in natural surroundings Portrait of John Ruskin (1854), and various other lively portraits, such as Emily Patmore (1851), Portrait of Four Children of the Wyatt Family (1849), James Wyatt and his Granddaughter, Mary Wyatt (1849). After 1860 Millais stopped painting in the PRB style as he claimed such detail took too much time and with a large family to feed, he could no longer afford to "spend a day painting an area 'no larger than a five shilling piece'" (Wood, 37).
Documented social history around the time of his death, including a biography by his son, obsesses over three themes concerning Millais's later stages of life:
- his eager embrace of aristocratic social circles and leisure activities
- his calculated intake of work resulting in extreme wealth and
- his cultivation of distinct manly and nationalistic English qualities or traits (Funnell, 13-34).
By the time of his death in 1896 he was president of the Royal Academy; quite a change for a once young and revolutionary breaker of cultural norms. In his later portraits, Millais increased his use of convention in pose and mise-en-scene, lessened the use of bright color, and his paintings began to lack intense realism because of his still accurate but more impressionistic style.
The basic question of his life and work then becomes, did his excellent reputation ruin him and any chance of true expression in his art? Millais's contemporary Arthur Symons in the 1896 article "The Lesson of Millais" in The Savoy believes it did: "He painted them all with the same facility and the same lack of conviction; he painted whatever would bring him ready money and immediate fame; and he deliberately abandoned a career which, with labor, might have made him the greatest painter of his age, in order to become with ease, the richest and the most popular" (quoted Funnell, 13).
A powerful theme at work in all criticism of Millais is that of expectation; everyone was aware of how capable he was and for that reason held him to a very high standard which he arguably lived up to with consistent work. Yet, did Millais sell out? Is his cannon of consistently good portraits enough for a man of such genius? Was he able to challenge himself as an artist doing portraits for the rich? Did he choose to create commodity rather than art? Did he develop a social persona at the expense of expressing something never seen before? One thing is sure, nothing compared to his early paintings of the PRB, because afterwards he failed produce anything outstanding and new.
Creating Arguments with Portrait Comparisons
Wilkie Collins (1850) vs. Self-portrait (1883): One could argue his brush strokes widened but did not effectively change. His portraits neither improved nor diminished over time.
The Bridesmaid (1851) vs. Sophie Caird (1880): One could argue his realism waned and lacked any inspiration. His portraits diminished in quality.
Effie Ruskin (1853) vs. Mary Chamberlain (1891): One could argue realism was only one of many styles used at his discretion. Some of his portraits improved.
Funnell, Peter, Malcolm Warner, Kate Flint, H.C.G. Matthew, Leonee Ormond, Millais Portraits. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.
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, Christopher. The Pre-Raphaelites. London: Seven Dials Press, 1981. 2000 Paperback edition.
Last modified 29 September 2004