Autumn Leavesone of Sir John Everett Millais's most beautiful paintings, was completed in 1856 and enthusiastically lauded in the Royal Academy exhibition of the same year. The composition centers on four young girls, modeled by two of Effie's sister and two local girls from Perth while they collect and burn leaves on what seems to be a late fall evening. The horizon depicts the setting sun and a looming evening, with the silhouettes of three trees acting as bare and stark reminders of the coming winter. This imminent season change also acts as a reminder of the purification of the earth after that death and decay of autumn, which the girls themselves signify as well. The piece very vividly captures the aura and feeling of late fall—the darkness of the scene alludes to the crisp, clear quality of the air, and the girls' faces glow from the cold. The two girls handling the leaves remain in black, and the younger girls to their right seem to pause from their work, in busy contemplation. The youngest girl grasps an apple and the elder holds a rake—both are looking down and towards the left of the painting.

This painting marks the shift from religious typology to the more secular literary subject matter within the Pre-Raphaelite milieu. More specifically, this work was also created later in Millais's career, and only one year before his notorious painting A Dream of the Past-- Sir Isumbrus at the Ford, which received a very violent reception. Millais's style slowly changed, and his technique began to shift from meticulous and tedious attention to detail, the Pre-Raphaelite way, to a looser, much less precise style. although critics usually claim A Dream of the Past signified this change, evidence of looser technique appears in Autumn Leaves, especially when compared to such earlier works as Christ in the House of His Parents (1849-50) or Lorenzo and Isabella (1848-9). The subject matter also illustrated a maturation of Pre-Raphaelite style, as the painting connotes the mortality of all things—the symbolism of the deadening leaves and the stark autumn sky, juxtaposed by the innocence and purity of the young girls, who themselves foreshadow the purification of winter to come. As all the characters remain in longing contemplation, a deep spiritual aura pervades this painting that invites the viewer to contemplate his own mortality and earthly presence.

Questions

1. although the painting does use religious symbolism, do you feel that Millais intended the allusion to Adam and Eve by including an apple in the hands of the youngest girl? What sort of commentary does this entail? Would a viewer recognize this at its time of exhibit in 1856?

2. Many critics say that Millais was reading Alfred Lloyd Tennyson's poem The Princess upon the painting's creation. A Sample of the text is as follows. (Ruskin himself called Millais a poet after seeing this painting).

Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean.
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy Autumn-fields,
And thinking on the days that are no more.

When viewed with the text, does the painting exhibit any additional meaning?

3. The two eldest girls handling the leaves wear a similar, dark colored outfits, which causes the painting to have a supernatural element, as they tend to blend into the background scenery. Does their attire symbolize anything? What would the PRB think about the fact that these two figures were not deliberately separated from the natural scenery?

4. Millais himself said that this painting inspired "the deepest idea of religious reflection." Is this painting a religious one? Given the subject matter of this painting in comparison to other ones (e.g., Hogarth), what can we deduce about society and the condition of the human psyche at the time?

Related Materials

References

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.


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Last modified 28 September 2004