The Ruling Passion

Sir John Everett Millais's later work can be characterized by a loosening of hand. The tightly rendered folds of Mariana's dress or the individually represented leaves of Ophelia's surroundings are things of the past. The artist now seeks the same amount of detail with a more relaxed touch. The Ruling Passion of 1885 exemplifies this progression, as Millais vacillates between loose and refined to communicate the theme of youth versus age.

The picture features a family encircling their father, who lies in bed and is likely dying. He gives his children a lesson in ornithology, describing the bird he holds in his hands, having scattered the other examples across the bed (and throughout the room). The fathers' ruling passion dictates the dynamic of this family, where he possesses the knowledge and bestows it upon his young children.

Millais pays particular attention to age in this piece, not only in terms of his choice of color and brushstroke, which I will discuss later, but in terms of his placement of figures. The youngest children appear closest to their father, and most importantly, to the bird, indicating their unbridled enthusiasm for knowledge, and their unfiltered affection for their father. As the children get older, they gain distance from dad, exemplified by the eldest daughter, who perches solemnly at the end of the bed, resting her heavy head on her hand, her eyelids drooping as she beholds the scene before her. Her profile, upon close examination, almost mirrors that of the bird the father holds: rightward-facing with reddish hair and taut features. Perhaps, then, the bird symbolizes the eldest daughter in younger age, having now taken flight from her father's grasp. Or, as the entire family possesses this red hair as the bird does, perhaps the bird symbolizes the family as an entity, held secure in the paternal palm.

Millais's use of color helps him define the ages of each figure, a theme central to the dynamic of the family, and to the painting. The younger children resemble Raphael's young angels in his Madonna paintings of the sixteenth century, their faces illumined by the pale white and pink tones the artist chooses. On the left-hand child, it is interesting to note the wing-like structure behind him, suggesting this angelic resemblance to Raphael's young angels. Millais renders the older pair of children with a more brisk stroke, as seen in their hair, and the more dramatic shadows on their faces. The mother's position indicates their older status, exemplified by the positioning of her hands especially. She places her right hands securely on the shoulder of the youngest child, yet her left hand actually obstructs the connection between the elder pair and their father. This signal communicates the Mother's care for the younger children, and again, enables Millais to study the dynamics of age in the family. Father's hands prove just as important, especially when viewed in contrast to Mother's, painted on the same latitude in the composition. While she extends her hand to span the greatest area on her child's body, he encloses his fingers to grip the specimen about which he instructs. These gestures symbolize the larger stereotypes of maternal versus paternal instincts: the mother extends herself, while the father withdraws.

Compared to Millais's other pictures, the artist spends comparatively little time on the interior of the home. While the color of the walls may have faded with time, the brushstrokes appear loosely applied and the content vague. The artist suggests the form of a library behind the bed, the bindings of books barely visible in the background. To the left appears a rounded mirror, a silhouette of a relative (or possibly the father in portrait), and what looks to be a large map hanging on the wall, judging from the scroll-like nature of the frame, and the overall tone of the piece. Millais makes one thing clear: his chief concern is the objects in the room, not its décor. The birds take precedent as the items of interst to the subjects and the viewer alike.

The idea for the painting, originally entitled The Ornithologist originated from a visit Millais took to the elderly ornithologist John Gould, himself an invalid (Barlow, 163), whose son had a wide collection of birds, all featured in A Ruling Passion. Aside from this inspiration, Millais likely picked up on the trend of ornithology as a popular pastime of the era. Ruskin, in fact, published a book on the subject entitled Love's Meinie. Animals in generally received particular attention at this time due in part to Darwin's studies on the evolution and physiognomy, but I believe, apart from academic trends, that the preoccupation with birds originated from a spiritual standpoint as well. As living celestial bodies, birds symbolize spirituality in their ability to ascend, and their capacity to defy the physical limitation of gravity. Furthermore, as prehistoric creatures, they suggest an element of the primitive, hearkening back to Creation itself. This theme figures into Millais's painting, where the cycle of life appears through the varying ages of the figures depicted.

Spirituality can hardly be ignored when one examines the symbolism inherent in one bird in particular: the owl in the glass on the left side of the painting. No doubt a surrogate for the father figure, the owl connotes wisdom, old age, and because of its gleaming white color, the purity of spirituality, and the promise of Heaven. The owl, though clearly not alive, observes the scene with vitality and intensity. He takes on the role of observer or witness, possibly suggesting the Divine looking down on his creations, man and beast alike. In any case, a comparison must be made between the two wisest in the room: the owl in his glass case, the man in his deathbed.

The title of the piece was drawn from Alexander Pope's "Epistle to Bathurst," a poem in which "Tis Heav'n each passion sends," (Barlow, 168). This Ruling Passion, therefore, conquers reason, giving the painting a spiritual quality. Any trace of Darwinian undertones, survival of fittest or otherwise, is overpowered by a prevailing purity of the Divine and His creations: knowledge, man, and bird. The Pre-Raphaelite spirituality is hard at work in Millais's image, where the seeming banality of an every day occurrence communicates a spiritual message.

Related Discussions of Millais by the Same Author


Barlow, Paul. Time Present and Time Past: The Art of John Everett Millais. Great Britain: Biddles Ltd, King's Lynn, 2005.

Last modified 28 September 2004