Saturday, July 19, 2014

John Everett Millais (Introduction)

John Everett Millais, The Good Samaritan

John Everett Millais (1829-1896)

In this initial post I will cover a bit of Millais's life and art. In the next post, I will discuss how the prints on the parables were created. Then in later posts I will discuss the prints themselves--a couple in detail and a few very briefly. Here goes:
John Everett Millais was born in 1829 in Southhampton, England. He was the youngest child of a moderately wealthy family that recognized his artistic talents very early. A child prodigy, Millais worked at the British Museum before he was ten and won a Silver Medal of Society of Arts for a drawing. Millais, at eleven, was the youngest student ever allowed to enroll in the Royalty Academy Schools (1840), and he quickly became a star pupil who won medals both for drawing (1843) and for painting (1847). While still a teenager, he also had a painting exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1846 (Pizarro seizing the Inca of Peru).
In 1848, Millais was one of the founding members, along with William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), a group of disenchanted young artists and writers—aged 19 to 22—who believed that art since Raphael was in need of reform. Art since Raphael, they believed, had incorrectly sought beauty through idealization, and this resulted in an artificial and sentimental aesthetic. The PRB attempted to return to the sincerity and simplicity of early Italian (pre-Raphael) “truthful” mode of painting that was “natural and sincere” (Adams 2007: 760). As Rossetti’s brother (W. M. Rossetti) described in 1895, the PRM attempted to:
  • Have genuine ideas to express.
  • Study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them.
  • Sympathize with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote. 
  • And, most indispensable of all: Produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.

Hunt summed it up this way: “In short, what we needed was a new and bolder English art that turned the minds of men to good reflection” (des Cars 2000: 23).
This philosophy resulted in works of art that illustrated a fidelity to nature not only through a detailed if not literal-minded attention in its representation but also a “clear, bright, sharp-focus technique” combined with a “moral seriousness” in their choice of themes to portray (Chilvers 2004: 563).

The PRB was important for Millais's development as an artist, but it was only of passing significance in his career that continued to change and develop in new directions. As an 1896 eulogy of Millais proclaimed: “The great characteristic of his whole life was an extraordinary activity, a constant striving to produce great results, and to strike out for himself new directions in which to exercise his exceptional powers” (Rosenfeld and Smith 2007: 14).

Millais eventually became extraordinarily successful: his works were extremely popular, he became very wealthy, and he was the first British artist to earn a hereditary title. Yet his early work as a member of the PRB attracted much criticism, and later in his career others attacked his works as compromising quality for popularity.

Millais’s first religious work of art, Christ in the House of His Parents, created a storm of controversy, because—with its rejection of the norm since Raphael—it deviated from the idealized portraits of Jesus and his family. The painting incorporates the symmetry of early Renaissance works with an abundance of realistic details—down to the wood shavings on the ground, the dirty toenails of the bare feet, the bulging veins in Joseph’s arms, and other everyday features (e.g., the background came from a carpenter’s shop on Oxford Street in London). These aspects of the painting were found to be utterly offensive by many viewers, despite the painting's clear theological message. The Times of London called it “revolting”: “The attempt to associate the holy family with the meanest details of a carpenter’s shop, with no conceivable omission of misery, of dirt, of even disease, all finished with the same loathsome minuteness, is disgusting . . . .” Charles Dickens was particularly offended, calling the depiction of the young Jesus as “hideous” and Mary as “so horrible in her ugliness . . . that she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin-shop in England . . . ,” and he described the painting as “mean, odious, revolting, and repulsive” (des Cars 2000: 98; later Millais and Dickens would become friends).

I won't discuss the painting in details, but note the wound on Jesus' hand, the blood on his foot, John the Baptist bringing water, the dove, the symbolic "sheep," and so forth:

John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents

John Ruskin, however, came to the defense of the PRM. Ruskin, at the time, was the most influential art critic in England, and his vigorous defense of the PRM helped turn the tide in their favor. 

By 1853, however, the PRM was virtually dissolved, and Millais experimented with other modes of artistic expression. In the 1850s, he moved from the brilliantly-colored and minutely-detailed works in the PRM style to a broader, more loose, and more fluent style of painting, In the 1850s. As noted above, Millais became the most popular artist of his day, although some critics would claim that he sacrificed artistic authenticity for fame and fortune (including Ruskin); he himself noted that with a family to support, he could no longer afford to work in a way that brought him little income. His subjects, then, became more sentimental and told a “good story” that would appeal to the broader public, such as charming portraits of children and scenes of family life and book illustrations (Chilvers 2004: 468; Rosenfeld and Smith 2008: 50).

By the late 1850s, Millais had become the foremost illustrator of books and magazines in England. In 1857, at the age of twenty-eight, Millais accepted a commission from the Dalziel brothers (actually three brothers and a sister) to illustrate the book, The Parables of Our Lord. The commission was for Millais to produce thirty images in a few months, but—even after the project was reduced from thirty to twenty images, which resulted in some blank pages in the book (e.g., an image of the Mustard Seed parable does not appear)—the project took Millais six years to complete. The book finally appeared in 1863. Millais explained the delay in this way:
I can do ordinary illustrations as quickly as most men, but these designs can scarcely be regarded in this same light—each Parable I illustrate perhaps a dozen times before I fix, and the hidden Treasure I have altered upon the wood at least six times (Rosenfeld and Smith 2007: 95).

Part of the delay also was caused by the fact that Millais was working on a number of other projects at the same time, in order to help support his family. Millais was paid £20—£1 per image, whereas he had just received £15 per image for illustrations of a book of Tennyson’s poems—for the project that he called (before he started it!) his “labour of love.”

In the next post, I will write more on the process of how Millais and the Dalziels created these images of the parables. 

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