In the present brief notice we shall speak of the few pictures that must strike the eye and claim the attention of every visitor. And first of the great work by Millais, which he calls in the catalogue "The Eve of St. Agnes," giving an extract from Keats's poem [h]. The chief objection that can fairly be made to the picture, although doubtless many will be raised, is that it does not illustrate the poem. If, however, we look upon this work of art as merely suggested by Keats's description, without in any sense affecting to be bound by it, the objection will be at once removed. The poem was beautifully illustrated by Arthur Hughes, some years since, in a picture painted in three compartments, which most art-lovers will readily call to mind. That was a true representation of Keats's idea, with its imagery and accessories; but it lacked that faculty of true genius so preeminently characteristic of Millais, and by which he takes possession of a subject, so to speak, and makes it his own. Rarely has his imaginative power been more remarkably displayed. The old room at Kinsale is haunted, not indeed by Keats's Madeline, but by a supernatural presence more fearful than holy. As she slowly disrobes herself in the moonlight, an involuntary shudder creeps over us, as if in the presence of an uncanny thing—the indescribable dread that the strange lady in Coleridge's fragment called forth when "She looked askance at Christabel." The chief merit of the picture is the unity of its parts; all of which seem necessary to the completeness of the whole, while further elaboration would destroy its power. That this power is of the highest kind we may be sure, from tho generar comment with which the picture was received by artists—" How like Rembrandt!" Not that we should mistake Millais's work for Rembrandt's; but we feel, when before this picture, that his magical power is akin to that which was exercised by the greatest genius of Holland. We regret that a quotation is given at all. The picture does not embody Keats's idea; and already critics are falling foul of what they call Millais's failure to appreciate the beauty of the author's creation. The genius of the painter could not be bounded by the special description of the poet. Let us, however, look at Millais's picture, without any reference to Keats's poem, except for the mere suggestion of a subject, and we shall soon become sensible that we are before a great work of art. We shall not the less feel this because we acknowledge the presence less of a maiden than of an apparition. The work is so harmonious that we can hardly fancy a change, either in the figure or the room, that would uot destroy its present unity. About the general truth of effect — which embraces, of course, the special effect of moonlight — there will probably be no difference of opinion. Neither is there likely to be any question about the colour, or the magical facility of the "painting." -The picture is hardly likely to become a popular favourite; and the object of these remarks is rather to furnish some hints which may help to the right understanding of the work than to disarm fairly applied criticism.
“Art. Royal Academy (First Notice).” The Reader: A Journal of Literature, Science, and Art. (9 May 1863): 461-62. London: “Published at 112, Fleet Street,” 1863. Hathi Digital Library Trust web version of a copy in the Princeton University Library. 20 July 2016.
Last modified 20 July 2016