Sunday, 27 November 2016

Autumn Leaves

Autumn Leaves. John Everett Millais. 1856

I visited Manchester City Art Gallery at the end of November, unfortunately I couldn't photograph this painting because the lighting was so dim. This reproduction is in the public domain though and is very clear. In my opinion it is one of Millais' greatest paintings, an opinion shared with Rossetti I've since discovered.

It isn't a large painting and it was done at about the time he was becoming freer and looser in his application. The thing about Millais was that he was gifted with immaculate technique; he could do anything and it was so easy, so later on he could paint almost without thinking.

This is a very unusual painting, because it doesn't really have a subject or a strong narrative element, or even the usual heavy symbolism of the pre-raphaelites (only the little girl's apple could be symbolic; not lost on the Victorians, who would be better at reading a painting than most of us). The detail is lavished on the leaves for some reason. The composition is almost religious and very harmonious. There is no attempt to prettify and one of the girls is even painted with a lazy eye when he could have made them "perfect." The rest evokes a feeling only, especially the capturing of twilight which has rarely been equalled. Everything is ambiguous and neither one thing nor another. It's neither daytime, nor night; neither summer nor winter; the girls aren't little girls or women; are they rich or poor? Are they happy and contented or sad? They offer up their incense at the passing of summer, but as the interpretation board described so well, this painting exists in a kind of limbo, and that's why I love it.

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