Empathy permeates John Everett Millais's The Blind Girl. In creating this painting, Millais means the viewer immediately to recognize both the intense beauty of the scenery in the work and the intense unfairness of the melancholy situation of its central figure, the blind beggar girl. Despite her handicap, this girl struggles on in life and even appears responsible for her younger, seeing companion, who grasps her hand tightly while in her lap and leans back into her chest with familiarity. In the older girl's lap too lays the accordion that most likely provides the two girls' only form of income. Millais similarly presents both of these two girls' dresses as tattered, worn, and somewhat dull in comparison with the brightly colored, even gleaming environment around them.

Here, Millais does superior work integrating not only the figures and their background but also the natural with the seemingly supernatural. Double rainbows and such vivid colors as Millais makes use of in this painting exist only rarely in nature. Here then, Millais intends the viewer of the work to experience a sense of awe at the intense and brilliant grandeur of the setting through this choice of color and through depiction of exaggerated natural phenomena. Because of these elements, therefore, significant tragedy lies in the fact that the principal figure of this work has no conception of the sublime beauty that surrounds her. We, as viewers, may experience this along with the girl in her lap and even the goats and crows, but she cannot. Perhaps Millais best represents this misfortune by placing a butterfly on the girl's shawl. A certain sense of rarity and specialness in this occurrence leads the viewer again to recognize the terrible situation of the girl's blindness. The butterfly lies close to her physically, yet she cannot appreciate or even have awareness of its presence and beauty. The tiny detail, then, represents the theme and emotions inherent in Millais's painting as a whole. Sublime splendor surrounds this girl and is even embodied by her physical attractiveness yet, for her, all of this will remain beyond conception.

Questions

1. Does Millais make a social comment here? How much does he criticize the situation of the poor in his own time? Could he simply be attempting to invoke his viewer's sense of tragedy in general and appealing to their emotions in order to gain quick and easy, sentimental favor?

2. What is the significance of Millais's employing pyramidal composition here? Do two figures allude to any common subject depicted in the history of art? Is their situation symbolic?

3. Why do you think Millais decided to depict the dark skies of what appears to be an oncoming storm here? Could the impending storm be representative or symbolic? Or, could it simply be present only to better highlight the supernatural quality of the rainbows?

4. Does it strike you as peculiar that these two figures appear to sit on the outskirts of the town just up the hill? Why would these two girls beg away from the activity of the town? Is it significant that the rainbows' ends appear to be in the center of the town from our perspective?

Related Materials

References

Wood, Christopher. The Pre-Raphaelites. New York: Studio/Viking, 1981.

The Pre-Raphaelites. London: Tate Gallery/Allen Lane, 1984.


Victorian Web Homepage Visual Arts Sir John Everett Millais Bt PRA (1829-96) Millais's paintings Discussion Questions

Last modified 28 September 2004