John Millais focuses his painting The Woodman's Daughter (1850-1851) on the themes of seduction and unrequited love. The inspiration of the painting is a poem of the same title by Coventry Patmore that tells the story of Maud, a poor woodman's daughter, and a wealthy squire's son. The son eventually seduces the girl. Because their difference in social class prevents them from marrying, Maud, in her despair, drowns their illegitimate child and goes mad. Patmore's poem is characterized by intensity and earnestness of feeling, qualities which the PRB favored and used in their own work. Patmore, a close associate of the PRB painters, was a friend of Millais.
Millais portrays the budding romance of the woodman's daughter and the squire's son when the two were children. The girl and the boy occupy the center of the piece. The squire's son solemnly extends his arm toward the girl, offering her a handful of strawberries. With eager innocence, the woodman's daughter cups her hands to receive the proffered gift. Millais explicitly shows the difference between social rank through the children's clothing. Maud wears a drab gray dress; no decoration of any sort adorns the plain material. The girl is clearly a member of the working class. The boy, on the other hand, wears a striking red outfit, complete with a dark blue belt, pristine white stockings, and black shoes. His attire provides a startling contrast to the modest clothing of Maud. Furthermore, the boy also appears at odds with the forest itself. While Maud and her father (who bends down and works to the left of his daughter in the painting) almost blend into the woods, the squire's son stands out and is out of place in the forest. The visual contrasts between the girl and boy foreshadow the tragic events to come in their relationship.
Because Millais sets the painting in a forest, the color green predominates. Millais paints the scene with the painstaking attention to detail advocated by Ruskin. This intentness to detail helps make Millais such a famous PRB artist. One can see individual leaves on the saplings and brush plants growing low to the ground. Millais also paints the foliage and bark of the trees with precision. In the upper portion of the painting, a blue sky containing white clouds lies behind the trees.
1. The future relationship of Maud and the squire's son results in disastrous consequences. Does Millais seem to be placing the blame on a particular person in this painting? Is the boy, clad in fiery red and visually at odds with the natural surroundings, at fault? Is the girl at fault for not exhibiting proper discretion, or for being too naive? Or, perhaps, is the father at fault? He is, after all, working with his back turned to his daughter, not realizing what is taking place. Are there any visual cues that indicate a culprit? Also, is Millais promoting a certain moral message through this piece?
2. Henry Hodgkinson bought this painting, but he asked Millais to first repaint the girl's head. Millais repainted her head, hands, and feet. As a result from this reworking, a dark aura appeared around those areas of the girl. Even though this discoloration was unintentional, does it somehow add to the painting? If so, how?
3. A similarly titled painting, The Woodman's Child (1860), was painted by Arthur Hughes. This piece is very detailed, typical of the PRB tastes. The focus of this painting, much like The Woodman's Daughter, is of a young innocent child. The child sleeps in the woods as her parents work. A squirrel and robin watch over the slumbering girl. However, unlike The Woodman's Child, this picture creates a different mood, one that is not foreshadowing a negative event. In what ways is this piece different so that it creates a different mood? Also, in what ways does this piece resemble Millais's piece?
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.
The Woodman's Daughter on the Guildhall site.
Last modified 27 September 2004