Sir John Everett Millais (1829-96) was the first artist to be created a baronet, on the recommendation of Prime Minister Gladstone in 1885. An almost exact contemporary of Frederic Leighton, he succeeded him, albeit briefly, as President of the Royal Academy. He was one of the most financially successful of Victorian artists as well as one of the most controversial.
In his lifetime it was his early, pre-Raphaelite works (he was a founder member of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) that were lambasted in the press; in his posthumous reputation his later works—notably his most popular, Bubbles (1886), widely regarded as the epitome of kitsch—have caused his reputation to suffer.
In this study, Paul Barlow sets out to challenge the simple “before and after” division of Millais’ “double identity” in a closely argued reading of a number of key works from all stages of his career. His survey ranges from the earliest exhibited pre-Raphaelite paintings, Isabella, to Speak, Speak, dating from 1895, the year before his death.
Dr Barlow seeks to demolish the conventional reading of Millais’ descent into vulgarity and populism. He argues strongly for the originality and serious intentions of the later works and traces Millais’ often subtle response to popular works by his contemporaries and he carefully locates Millais’ place in the aesthetic movement. Not an uncritical advocate, he is as hard as any more biased judge on the failures. It must have been tempting to cherry-pick Millais’ unquestioned masterpieces, avoiding the sentimental and bathetic, both rather frequent in later years.
Millais’ works do not lack for detailed description and analysis. The great pre-Raphaelite exhibition at the Tate (1984) took him as far as 1873, long after he had abandoned the strict rule of pre-Raphaelitism.
An important exhibition of his portraits at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in 1999 included late works of scintillating bravura paintwork in the grand manner, for which no apology could ever be necessary. And, not to be spoken in the same breath as an academic study, the art market has not disdained the late, much reviled “fancy” and modern-life subjects, giving them catalogue entries of equal proportions to the most rigorous exhibition publication. Examples that have passed through the sale rooms quite recently include, among others discussed here, Trust Me (ex-Forbes Collection), Sleeping (Millais family), the portrait of Louise Jopling (now in the NPG), and The Grey Lady. These auctionhouse catalogue accounts are often wide-ranging in their contextualisation of the works in question as Dr Barlow acknowledges by referring the reader in a footnote to the Christie’s sale catalogue entry for Sleeping.
What Dr Barlow does is to go beyond the biographical and anecdotal—largely taken as read—even beyond a focus on narrative content into a meticulous analysis of the organisation and making of his chosen paintings and book illustrations, by scrutinising the marks and spots of paint brush-stroke by brush-stroke and the drawing line-by-line. In a book limited to 45 black and white illustrations, a good visual memory is needed, particularly in the case of The Knight Errant, where some key features of the story are all but illegible. Dr Barlow’s analysis dwells insistently on the facture of each works, on gradations of tone and the effects of texture in the paintings. His scrutiny is minute and must certainly have the effect of sending his readers back to the pictures themselves.
Millais, like many of his fellow artists, disliked modern dress. However, a significant contribution to the modernity of many of the late paintings was his response to fashion. His 18th-century costume pieces date from the period of the late 1860s and 1870s when the fashions of the 1770s were the latest mode, and not only in aesthetic circles. The revived 18th-century style was, in its way, as much an aesthetic marker as the loose flowing look of the dress reformer and the artistic coterie, with which Millais had little truck. Dr Barlow deals with this point only tangentially, in the passage on responses to Velázquez and Reynolds, but it does emerge in one particularly telling juxtaposition. The two “fancy” portraits of Swift’s heroines Stella and Vanessa (1868) are matched with the triple portrait of the Armstrong sisters called Hearts are Trumps (1872). Although the dresses were designed by the artist and specially made for the Armstrong portrait, they are, nonetheless, highly fashionable and could have been worn on conventional social occasions. All three of these pictures could have been viewed by women wearing versions of the same style of dress. The “Frenchness” of Louise Jopling’s portrait was certainly enhanced by the fact that the stunning dress was bought in Paris. Children were more accustomed to being dolled up in historical costume than Dr Barlow allows, but he may well be right in deducing that they were uneasy in these guises. The “Bubbles” suit was to be the scourge of late 19th-century boyhood, along with a version of the velvet and lace associated with Little Lord Fauntleroy.
Millais’ late landscapes attracted more odium in the 20th century than many of his other late works through the unfavourable comparison with French impressionism. Dr Barlow’s analysis of them is sensitive, bringing out the qualities which are increasingly appreciated as the complex issues around “spontaneity” are examined in greater detail.
The late portraits emerge as well able to hold their own with Watts in emotional and psychological insight and certainly in painterly quality.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Not as bad as he has been made out to be'