Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Millais and the Parables (conclusion)

John Everett Millais, The Tares

As I mentioned in my last post, Millais’s representations of the parables were not universally acclaimed. One primary critique was that most of Millais’s backgrounds and contexts were taken from Scotland, unlike his former PRB (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) colleague, William Holman Hunt, who travelled to the Holy Land and painstakingly recorded the sites and people of the area, Millais did not venture beyond Scotland and London for his models, landscapes, and other contexts (Rosenfeld and Smith 2007: 127). The women also usually appear in contemporary clothing (e.g., The Lost Piece of Silver, The Wise and Foolish Virgins, The Foolish Virgins). Still, the images are usually extremely well-crafted, as is the woman searching for the lost coin. As of yet, the coin has not been found:

John Everett Millais, The Lost Piece of Silver

Even images that are expertly crafted with intricate detail, such as The Wicked Husbandmen, contain anachronistic elements. Note the outstanding craftsmanship of the vines—their leaves and tendrils—as well as the detail of the rope around the heir’s neck. A slimy toad and a dove "bring a sense of evil to the scene." Yet the wall of the vineyard is a representation of the wall of Balhousie Castle in Perth, which Millais had used for an earlier image, The Love of James I in Scotland (Millais 1975: xxviii). 

John Everett Millais, The Wicked Husbandmen

The building in the background of The Unmerciful Servant also looks suspiciously like St. Paul’s Cathedral in London (ibid.).

John Everett Millais, The Unmerciful Servant

A contemporary review in the Athenaeum (December 1863) noted that the images suffered from a lack of consistency. Millais could have, it argued, either attempted to represent the parables in their original settings (and it suggested that a trip to the Holy Land would have been helpful in this regard) or to (re)interpret the parables consistently in contemporary contexts. As Mary Lutyens notes, for the most part, Millais was content to give these parables a contemporary context in “authentic Scottish backgrounds,” but even though he read the parables closely and followed the stories carefully, he “never attempted to penetrate their mysteries.” Only in three works—The Pharisee and the Publican, The Unjust Judge, and The Pearl of Great Price—did Millais attempt a realistic first-century context (for which he may have been indebted to some of Hunt’s sketches; Millais 1975: xxxiii). Much could be said about these two images (and others), so perhaps I will return in the future to explore them in detail.

John Everett Millais, The Pharisee and the Publican

John Everett Millais, The Pearl of Great Price

One wonders whether the extensive number of illustrations took its toll on Millais, however, and started to diminish the quality of some of the engravings (the task was also reduced from 30 images of parables to 20). The details in some prints are not as extensive. Note, for example, that, although the detail of the field itself is impressive, Millais does not add any distinguishing features to the sky in The Hidden Treasure (see July 16 post). On the other hand, the print for The Sower includes even more elements:

John Everett Millais, The Sower

The sky gains some delineation in this image, and other aspects of the parable (e.g., the rocks, birds, plants with thorns, etc.) are intricately detailed (although one reviewer called the birds "clumsy").

There were some errors in the original work. The text of the book included the parable of The Great Dinner (Luke 14:15-24), but Millais illustrated an aspect of the parable of The Marriage Feast (Matthew 22:1-14) that is only found in Matthew: the "king" (it's also not a king in Luke but a [wealthy] man) expelling (throwing "into the outer darkness") the man who was not wearing a "wedding robe" (Matthew 22:11-14). Millais depicts the unfortunate moment (which complicates the interpretation of Matthew's parable) when the attendants start to grab the man.

John Everett Millais, The Marriage Feast

That problem was corrected in later editions of The Parables of our Lord by including the Matthean version of the parable instead of the Lukan one.

In her book, English Pre-Raphaelitism, Susan Casteras lists some other contemporary criticisms of Millais's parable etchings (pages 89-93). Some of those critiques seem overdrawn, however. For example, yes, the symbols in The Tares are rudimentary, such as the snakes and the jackal(?), but the malevolence in the sower's face as he looks back is impressive, as are other elements of the image.

Casteras notes that one reviewer in the New Path (March 1864) argues that Millais's etchings do not make the parables any clearer, that Millais did not "tell" the stories (i.e., one has to know the parables in advance to see the point), and that the parables were not even really "illustrated": Millais should have "interpreted" the parables for the English people (1990: 89). One example to which the reviewer pointed was print, The Leaven. This image, he argued, is just a "first-rate drawing of a woman kneading bread." We don't even see the woman's face (89):

John Everett Millais, The Leaven
This critique seems to me to miss the mark. How would Millais have "interpreted" this parable any better with just one image? We see the wheat in the left, and the three loaves being prepared. Does not the hiding of the woman's face add to the drama of the image, which makes the young woman's gaze at the other woman even more powerful? Yes, the clothing is anachronistic, but, for me in this instance, that does not diminish the pathos of the scene; the positioning of the two women highlights it.

Other interpreters have found Millais's images of the parables to be haunting, full of power, and meaningful. Eugene Benson argued that the images were “positive, singular, full of interest,” as well as profound in their interpretations (Casteras 1990: 92). Even a cursory look at the images (see them all here) demonstrate their beauty, power, and insight, beyond questions of appropriate context.

These blog posts have only scratched the surface, but I encourage you to look at the prints yourself. I have decided that in the book, I will focus on the print of the Importunate Widow and the Unjust Judge.

I will leave you with one final image: The Laborers in the Vineyard:

John Everett Millais, The Laborers in the Vineyard

The next two or three posts will give an update on the progress of writing the book and some thoughts about that process. 


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