Chris Rogers | Writer on architecture and visual culture
Lorenzo and Isabella (1848)
Millais was just 19 when he created this masterpiece. Though he was to paint for another half century thereafter, it remains one his most effective works.
The source is a 14th century Italian tale that had been popularised by Keats. Lorenzo sits to the right, offering food almost reverentially to his lover Isabella, who accepts it demurely. A courtier looks on, knowingly. Isabella’s brothers, who disapprove of the union, glower across the table. Only hinted at by Millais through inclusion of the partially-obscured pot on the balcony is the grim fate which awaits Lorenzo; he is murdered by the brothers. Isabella, distraught, uncovers the body, removes the head and keeps it in a pot in which basil is grown. The brothers in turn steal the pot, and Isabella eventually dies of a broken heart.
The work is a display of almost photographic verisimilitude by Millais. The life-like detail ranges from the complex patterned wall covering to the relief carving on the bench seat end to the food and wine to the fabric of Isabella’s dress. Millais’s skills are not limited to inanimate objects, however. The piece marks the start of his interest in painting distinct, identifiable figures, strong psychological states and powerful, decisive females.
The subject of this intensely absorbing picture is taken from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure; Mariana, rejected by her fiancé after her dowry is lost, is confined to a moated grange. Autumn is coming, seasonally and metaphorically. The physical discomfort she shows after many hours embroidering mirrors her mental state.
Millais creates a beautiful, dark and claustrophobic space in this painting through manipulation of the composition. The devotion to God symbolised by the items on the far table is balanced by the brightness of the window bay where Mariana toils, yet the views through the windows are obscured by the encroaching undergrowth and the stained glass. This depicts, in ironic contrast to Mariana's situation, the Annunciation.
Millais brilliantly realises the crisp, drying leaves (also symbolic), the rich embroidery and thick velvet of Mariana’s dress to put the viewer into this room where the yearning can almost be touched.
The Order of Release 1746 (1853)
This is one of a series of pictures in which Millais showed ordinary people trapped in situations of conflict. This conflict can be religious (The Huguenot), martial (The Black Brunswicker) or, as in this case, simply emotional.
A Jacobite soldier has been imprisoned by the English after the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army at the battle of Culloden. His wife hands an order of release to the gaoler; she simultaneously supports her husband as he weeps in relief and cradles their child. The family dog provides a domestic counterpoint to the officialdom and anticipates the husband's return home.
Critics praised the look of proud stoicism on the wife’s face, and the contrast between her strength and the exhausted, wounded and subdued husband is a surprisingly disconcerting take on our accepted view of Victorian gender roles.
Millais’s bold cropping of parts of the image and hiding of the man's face, immediately redolent of photography, come only a decade or so after that artform was invented.
Eve of St Agnes (1863)
Mixing themes of sensuality and romantic love, Millais’s painting illustrates a traditional ritual dating from Roman times but also the subject of a poem by Keats from 1819. The belief is that if a young woman retires to bed on the eve of St Agnes’s Day (20 January) without looking behind her, her future husband will appear in a dream, eat a meal with her and kiss her.
Millais’s wife Effie posed for the picture. She had – infamously, scandalously – left her previous husband, writer and critic John Ruskin, over a decade previously after falling in love with Millais whilst all three were on holiday together in Scotland. Fiction and fact are therefore merged.
Effie’s hair, pose and manner seem remarkably modern to contemporary eyes, and together essay desire and wistfulness in an intimate setting.
Speak! Speak! (1895)
From Millais’s late period, indeed painted just a year or so before his death, this dramatic painting has no basis in historical fact or literature and was intended to be interpreted freely by the viewer. Broadly the image depicts a man who has been reading letters from a past love and is startled when she appears before him in her wedding dress – but, as Millais’s own son later put it, “in spirit or in truth”?
As with Mariana, Millais divides the picture space in two. The real world is to the right, inhabited by the man and his modestly-laid bedside table. The possible dream world lies outside the comforting, projected glow of the candle light, connected by shadows and painted in a far looser style. The whiteness of the wedding dress heightens her (un)reality.
In many ways, Speak! Speak! represents the apogee of Millais’s life-long goal to depict new, modern forms of female beauty, drawing on the spirit of the times.
Posted 31 December 2020
John Everett Millais: Dreams and desires
Walker Art Gallery/Shafe