As he worked on his painting Autumn Leaves, John Everett Millais was supposedly reading Alfred Tennyson's poem "The Princess", contemplating in particular the verse which reads

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.

Looking at the painting, the viewer comes to understand how Millais's art comes to embody the ideas set forth in this literary work. The painting meditates on fleeting beauty, becoming the visual manifestation of the deeply emotional, almost physical internal pang that can result from contemplating the transience of time and beauty, and from dwelling nostalgically on times and beautiful things in the past.

The scene itself depicts four young girls creating a pile of fallen leaves which will presumably burst into flames in the near future; in fact, one can already see wisps of smoke seeping out from the left side of the pile. The land in the background slides into a deep blue horizon on which it is difficult to discern detail, and above it the orange and lemon coloring of the sky, typical of an autumn sunset, contrasts strongly with the dark of the land. The little vegetation is sparse and spare looking. The girls themselves are clustered around the leaf pile in a way that looks almost worshipful. They are young and beautiful, but, as critic Malcolm Warner posits, the surrounding change in the seasons and the shift from day to night suggest that they cannot remain this way for long. The entirety of the painting causes the onlooker to wish that he could freeze time forever in this lovely, haunting moment.


1. A single leaf one the basket held by the leftmost girl is particularly large and illuminated. Why would Millais want the viewer to focus on this single leaf? Compare this leaf on the basket to the monarch butterfly on the girl's cloak in The Blindgirl. Is there a similarity in their symbolism?

2. Notice the poses of the girls. The outstretched arms of the two dark haired ones and the calm downward gaze of the youngest on the right seem to resemble figures in prayer. Does this painting hold religious significance or contain Biblical typology? How does it apply religious elements to secular subject matter?

3. The color scheme in this painting is exceptional in that, unlike most Pre-Raphaelite works, the hues are, for the most part, rather subdued and the landscape is not evenly lit. How do the colors help to bring the painting's mood in tune with the mood of the excerpt from Tennyson's poem? How do they help to connect word and image? By deviating from this typical characteristic of PRB painting, does Millais bring out any elements in the work that are identifiably Pre-Raphaelite?

Related Materials


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