Millais, the greatest Victorian Artist
|Sophie Gray. 1857|
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:
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.