John Everett Millais (1829-1896) was an English painter who, along with William Holman-Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rosetti (aka coolest trio since the Holy Trinity), founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. These guys were extremely dissatisfied with the state of the art world at the time, and especially so with the Royal Academy Schools. Millais himself was a child prodigy and had been the youngest ever to enrol at age 11, but he was not the first nor the last to push back against a teacher’s authority!
It is hard to talk about single movements in art because they often do not stand alone – the PRB came along at a time when many other British and French artists were breaking the chains of academia. Gustave Courbet was inspiring Realists, Eduard Manet was out there painting street scenes, Impressionism was about to blow up, and of course many others. All of these movements were trying to get the art world to keep up with the rest of the world that was changing around them – industrialism, urbanisation, internationalism. The traditional needed to catch up with the new.
What really made the PRB shine was the innovation in their paintings. They found the genre painting at the time to be too sentimental, very unrealistic, and pretty boring tbh. They weren’t wrong – yes the paintings produced were great artistically, but they had no real substance. It was all serene scenes of people of different classes getting along ravingly with each other when in reality the class structures were not so genial. The PRB were highly critical of ‘decorative’ art – and that’s where their name came from too. Since Raphael had come to represent the High Renaissance Classicism that everyone was emulating at the time, they became the PRE Raphelites – back to painting before all the hoity toity perfectionism of beautiful people being beautiful.
Like I said before, Millais had attended the Royal Academy from a young age, so of course there are paintings out there by him that follow the Royal standard. Here is one by him that is pretty typical of what the Academy expected, and thus what the Brotherhood was bucking against.
Wow, what a happy bunch of English soldiers and Scottish children during the ’45 Rising! Yeah, right. Despite it being based on a real event Millais does not inject any political disturbances – it is non-provocative and unlikely to ruffle any feathers, as expected in standard genre paintings during the early Victorian era. Let’s not forget, too, that he is only 15 (!!) when he painted this – still young and starry-eyed! – and not yet bogged down by the disappointment of life.
Four years later, the Pre-Raphelite Brotherhood was formed and Millais produced Ferdinand and Ariel.
This is not for mindless decoration. The work is very brightly coloured with a sense of hyper-reality – lots of variants of green with a very sharp focus and no shadows. There is little depth which makes the image flatter, bringing it all nearer to the forefront. The Ferdinand figure is separated by colour, indicating his dominance in the image, yet remains amongst it in the shared flatness. This was crazy unconventional and was called senseless and primitive by critics. They kind of made fun, calling it quattracentro – 14th Century, implying primitive Renaissance, before they got real amazing at perspective. Which, yeah! Pre-Raphelite! But this piece is anything but simple. It is scientifically accurate with its botanical detail – there are over 20 distinct plant species identifiable. So, on one hand, it is incredibly truthful to nature, and on the other, it is overthrown by richness and strangeness.
Literature was an important influence on Millais. Obviously they were all very cultured and wicked smaht. This one comes from Shakespeares The Tempest, and I think when he exhibited it he included the illustrated passage alongside it – I’m sorry, my notes are a bit messy on this part, but since he does it with others will be naughty and assume. His little Shakespeare obsession also lines up with the PRB’s preoccupation with love, loss, and death.
Ophelia, drawn from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This is an invented scene – Ophelia’s suicide is not included on the theatrical stage, only described as drowning as a consequence of rejection. Here she is shown to be ruined by love, as she collects flowers and uncaringly falls into the water. She sings as she floats until her clothes eventually pull her under forever. This tragic image has become a dominant imagining of the implied scene. Millais objectified Shakespeare’s character, turning her into a vessel of his own feelings on the 19th Century, and the anxiety surrounding sexuality, gender, and feigned normalcy. Perhaps due to this new look, Ophelia herself became the embodiment of the Early Victorian hysterical woman, vulnerable victim, and seductive temptress all in one.
Similar to Ferdinand and Ariel this piece is incredibly rendered, with painstaking scientific exactitude. All the botany is symbolic, both the individual flowers and the overall oppressiveness of the foliage compressing in on her. The ‘language of flowers’ was a popular Victorian theme – it was assumed that people had some base knowledge of the symbolism which is why there are so many flowers included in paintings at this time. The vibrant red poppy refers to sleep and death, compounded by the violets around her neck which can also signify death, or chastity/faithfulness. Essentially, she died for her love – if she couldn’t have him, she’d have no one. The woman is modelled on Elizabeth Siddell, who modelled for the PRB frequently. For this piece, she had to remain submerged in a bath for hours at a time, with a lamp shining on her face. That poor girl suffering for others pleasure! She later died of TB. Life imitates art.
The Victorian era can probably be surmised by the word ‘snobbery’. To understand the art you had to know literature, botany, technique, the latest scandals, and who was doing what. Millais’ Lorenzo and Isabella is practically the epitome of art snobbery. It is SO symbolic – every intricate and carefully crafted detail is meant to be READ.
The painting tackles the heavily policed social climate of Victorian England, alluding to arranged marriages and class structures. Millais used a John Keats poem as a point of departure – although the poem was displayed alongside the painting during its exhibition, it was not necessary to read the painting. The PRB loved to use literature as a springboard but wanted to convey the message primarily through visual means.
The poem was Isabella/The Pot of Basil published in 1820. As I said, it is not necessary to read the painting and actually very few people would have known it at the time. But we know the painting is somewhat based on that and it does make it a lot easier to explain, so let’s cut this corner. The poem is about Isabella, whose family wants to marry her off to some high nobleman but real life gets in the way and she falls for her brothers’ employee, Lorenzo. This is a nightmare because of socioeconomic differences and class relations and town gossip etc. The brothers find out and kill him. She has a creepy dream then digs his body up and puts his head in the basil pot. Genius! Bravo! So with the foreshadowing, let’s dig in.
Now, this painting is not to be taken as a simple illustration or representation of the poem – Millais is INVENTING a moment, and impregnating it with meaning.
The first thing to notice though is the composition and space. It’s messed up. There are thirteen people at the table (first to rise is the first to die! -Professor Trelawny) and they are divided into subgroups. There are four people on the left of the table, and then a ton of people crammed on the right. How?? And where does that table even fit against the wall?? The space is crowded and impossible, and the depth is nonsensical. This all adds to the feeling of unreality and something awry.
There’s a lot of symbology to unpack in this one (and no way will I get everything). The detail is also very over the top, as the PRB were prone to be. The detail of the wall, for example, must’ve taken hours. The plates that they are eating off actually contain visual stories in themselves, as well the chair Isabella is sitting on – pretty sure one is even the story of a murder (though this is something my professor said and I can’t really find any sources to back this up).
Lorenzo and Isabella are separated into a little duo, and the brothers opposite from them are shown in full profile indicating their starring roles. The others are all just smushed into the background. The nun shows a little personality with some uneasy apprehension, but the rest seem willfully ignorant. No one is interacting, except for the title characters.
Lorenzo is looking SO intensely at Isabella. Look at that obsessive stare. She is his everything! He is offering her a blood orange. In traditional symbology this means passion, intensity, and sometimes risk/danger. There is a pot of basil behind them, to hint at his fate.
Physiognomy is an important aspect with respect to the brothers. This is the ‘stereotyping’ of facial features – certain noses mean this and eyebrows mean that. In this case, the brother at the forefront is kind of aggressively ugly. He has a dark brow overshadowing his evil little eyes, and his nose is big and aggressive. This fits with his ‘character’ – the brute force, shown by his violent nut cracking and angry gritted teeth. Not to mention he’s trying to kick the sweet little dog at Isabella’s knees. Under his own chair is another dog that couldn’t possibly fit there while peacefully sleeping, and the tipping of the chair further highlights the unbalanced nature of ..well, the whole damn thing!
The other brother has a thinner face and slender nose, meant to look cunning and sly. His hawk on his chairback also signifies hunting. He may be the brains, while his partner is the brawns. The hawk has a white feather in its beak – a doves feather? – alluding to the attack on the innocent.
This is the Victorian equivalent of a soap opera – soo juicy!
Eventually, Millais started painting in broader styles. This seemed to coincide with him stealing his close friend John Ruskin’s wife, and having 8 kids. It sounds like he had a family to support and so had to sell out – i.e. stop having fun and experimenting and start churning out those sellable works.
Basically this article is too long and I’m tired of writing, plus we don’t really care about him outside of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood anyway. One day I’ll come back and do his later works some real justice.