Sir John Everett Millais's Autumn Leaves evokes a deep sense of melancholy in the viewer while also attaining a high level of Pre-Raphaelite beauty. A group of children, most likely a family, stand close together raking and bundling the fallen autumn leaves. The two older girls wear dark dresses, possibly signifying a state of mourning, and the fact that they need to involve themselves in physical labor suggests that they might belong to the working classes. although the scene depicts an action, Millais paints the figures in a relatively static way; the central figure holds her hands full of leaves frozen in midair above the basket, and the direct gaze of the two older girls combined with the inattentiveness of the younger children suggest that none are fully focused on the task at hand. Millais places them against a darkened landscape just as the sun sets and their working day comes to a close.
Millais chooses a specific series of details for Autumn Leaves which combine to evoke a strong sense of loss. The twilight in the background depicts the countryside just at the verge of twilight, creating a beautiful silhouettes of the clouds and trees above the skyline. This transition from day into night, as well as the progression of summer into winter signified by the falling of the leaves, connote the passage of time. The dying of the leaves itself acts as a memento mori, a reminder that all things end. The youth and innocence of the figures suggests this as well, implying that despite their current state they too will age and someday die. Millais paints a beautiful scene of country life instilled with the theme of tragedy common in Pre-Raphaelite works.
1. What does the direct gaze of the two older girls signify? Does Millais intend to create a more direct connection between the painted figures and the viewer? Should the viewer feel a sense of pity or sympathy for the children? If so, how does this differ from The Blind Girl in terms of the emotions it evokes?
2. although Millais groups the figures quite closely together, he chooses not to employ a pyramidal composition. Does this choice, aside from being a reaction against the academic painting of the time, affect the painting in any way? Does it change the mood?
3. In what ways does Autumn Leaves differ from simple genre paintings of the mid-nineteenth century?
4. Millais chooses quite beautiful girls as models for Autumn Leaves. Does this add or detract to the intended themes of the painting?
5. How do the themes of Autumn Leaves relate to those of TennysonŐs poems?
- Capturing a Transient Moment: Millais's Autumn Leaves
- Nostalgic Intensity in Millais's in Autumn Leaves
- Mortality, Purity, and Religious Contemplation in Autumn Leaves
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.
Last modified 28 September 2004