Tuesday, 27 December 2016

John Everett Millais

Millais, the greatest Victorian Artist

Sophie Gray. 1857

My Christmas treat to myself is this wonderful monogaph of the life and works of John Everett Millais. The cover portrait of a young Sophie Gray (his sister in law) is a stunning yet surprising choice when the obvious cover photo would have been of his most recognisable painting "Ophelia," which I may write about later. The author is clearly in awe of the artist and his book is a necessary correction to many misconceptions about his art.

Millais was an infant prodigy in the true sense of the word, but although there have been many in history and art schools are always full of precocious talents who disappear, or just stop creating, or get stuck in mannered art, his story is unusual in that he realised his potential fully; he never stopped learning, he experimented when he could, and shifted his art right until the end of his life when he could so easily have stuck creating what sells best. The trajectory he followed wasn't that unusual: from highly detailed, technically superb painting full of narrative elements and symbolism, to a much looser and freer technique as he mastered painting totally. And he was the total painter. His draughtsmanship was faultless, his understanding of classical composition and colour understanding couldn't be bettered. Portraits and landscapes, children and animals were all tackled with absolute assurance and even when the proportions of a subject were not perfect, there would be a reason why not. Those artists born into his period were either blessed to see his work or frustrated that such a great artist was in their midst and comparisons would always be made. The Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) knew he was their most accomplished artist and when they went off on jaunts - ostensibly to research the old masters - and experiment in love, life and intoxicants, he was happy to stay at home in his studio and just work. He had little time and need to kneel at the foot of the masters; Velasquez and Rembrandt were enough for him.

So why was he later neglected, until quite recently? In his day he was the wealthiest, the most popular and most highly regarded painter in Britain. Critics admired him and acclaimed his works, and the public loved him. Then his popularity with critics and public waned. I think there are several reasons:

  • Fashions in art change - as they should do.
  • The enormously popular, commercially necessary (large family to support) portraits, such as "Bubbles" were seen as overly sentimental.
  • Ophelia! Probably the most popular and iconic image of the PRB, and yet in artistic terms and amongst many artists and critics, not his greatest painting by any means. He is now often judged, based on that one lesser painting.
  • Judging his work through today's eyes: it's too easy to miss how revolutionary his art was in his day. We are so used to his and the PRB’s art now that it no longer surprises us or even shock us as it did in his day. Remember too, that in some ways, the Impressionists may have not come about without some of his pioneering and revolutionary challenges to the academies in London and Paris. Monet and Manet certainly owe much to the foundations laid by Millais. Singer-Sargent can definitely be traced back to the master.
  • The painting of Sophie Gray above is an example of what I mean. We may see it as a great portrait of an exceptionally beautiful girl on the edge of womanhood, but it would have shocked the Victorians - even with their notorious double standards. The bright red lips and the slightly raised chin is very radical for the time, if not to us since about the 1960s probably. It could only be achieved because of the close relationship between artist and the model (no impropriety as far as we know though). The shock has gone and it can be appreciated as just one of the finest realist portraits of the 19th century.
  • Modern art appreciation. Millais was a very intellectual and "high minded" painter and totally the Victorian gentleman. He wanted art to make better people. His work had a story to tell and the viewer was required to make some effort to understand the background, or interpret the symbolism. Today, we are either ignorant of these elements or we are too mentally exhausted to make that effort, and why not; I sometimes want something that is immediately attention-grabbing, pretty and decorative. The quote below from The Book of Life website describes this state better than I can.

    "There is another reason why modern audiences are likely to sidestep opportunities for high-minded consumption: because they are so exhausted. Modern work demands a punishing amount from its participants. We typically return from our jobs, at the day’s close, in a state of severe depletion; frazzled, tired, bored, enervated and sad. In such a state, the products and services for which we will be in the mood have to be of a very particular cast. We are likely to be too brutalised to care very much about the suffering of unfortunates in faraway tea plantations or cotton fields. We may have endured too much tedium to stay patient with intelligently reticent and studiously subtle media. We may be too anxious to have the strength to explore the more sincere sections of our own minds. We may hate ourselves a bit too much to want to eat and drink only what is good for us. Our lives may be too lacking in meaning to concentrate only on what is meaningful. To counterbalance what has happened at work, we may be powerfully compelled towards what is excessively sweet, salty, distracting, easy, colourful, explosive, sexual and sentimental."

    Mariana. 1851
               She only said, 'My life is dreary,
          He cometh not,' she said;
        She said, 'I am aweary, aweary,'
          I would that I were dead!'

    Tennyson's poem of the character from Measure for Measure would have been familiar to the educated Victorian viewer, so this painting from Millais when he was just 20 years old (that is an incredible thought for starters) illustrates perfectly the aims of the PRB and his early style. Essentially it is full of narrative details and the technique of recording great details is necessary for this story telling. Her rutted existence and her posture was the subject of a rave review in The Guardian that described her as "writhing under the prolonged torture of hope deferred." The leaves scattered on the floor from the landscape outside are symbols of her slow mental and physical breakdown. The viewer has to be a reader. 

    For the modern viewer we don't necessarily have to know all of the background detail; we can create our own stories. Even without a story the superb colour sense is wonderful on its own and that blue velvet dress must still be the envy of every woman. The most common interpretation today would probably simply be of a woman who is stretching her back after spending hours working on her tapestry. Deeper still, she could be feeling trapped in domesticity, or a loveless marriage and seeks distraction through a tedious and futile exercise, or she could be finding fulfllment in her creative task. Either way, it's a situtation many of us artists can relate to. Whatever we choose, with or without the accompanying poem, it is a beautiful painting on any level.

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