John Everett Millais
Biography of English Victorian Pre-Raphaelite Artist.

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Ophelia (1852) Tate Collection, London

John Everett Millais (1829-96)

The Victorian English painter and book illustrator John Everett Millais - associated initially with the Pre-Raphaelites - was an infant prodigy, who became an extremely rich and fashionable portraitist. Indeed, his virtuoso portrait art, at times on a par with other 19th-century greats like John Singer Sargent and Thomas Eakins, helped him to become one of the first "rock-star" celebrities of English figurative painting. A hugely visible figure in Victorian art, he was elected President of the Royal Academy in London.

Many paintings by John Everett Millais are now available as prints in the form of poster art.

Self-Portrait (Undated)
Uffizi Portrait Collection, Florence.

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Millais was born in Southampton. His family, having lived for some time in Jersey and northern France, moved in 1838 to London, where his precocious talent could be properly developed. Between the ages of 11 and 17 he attended the Royal Academy Schools, becoming the youngest-ever pupil. His first exhibited oil was the conventional romantic Pizarro Seizing the Inca of Peru (1846; Victoria and Albert Museum, London).


In 1848, along with two other young and dissatisfied artists, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82) and William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), Millais founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. A later member was Edward Burne-Jones, while other associates included Ford Madox Brown (1821-93) and Frederic Leighton (1830-96). Exhibited the following year, his Lorenzo and Isabella (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) shows the minute detail, the pristine colour, the symbolism, and the use of friends as models. Christ in the House of His Parents (1850; Tate Gallery, London) applied the same principles to religious subject matter. It was attacked for its non-idealized depiction of the Holy Family, while its stylized, almost ritualistic quality associated it disastrously with the dreaded encroachment of the Roman Church and "pope-ish" asceticism.

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The pictures he exhibited in 1851 were also badly received. A Huguenot (1851; private collection) won great popularity, however, and its pathetic theme of lovers parted by historical circumstances reoccurred in The Proscribed Royalist (1853; private collection), The Black Brunswicker (1860; Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight), and others. The two-figure formula removed the need for more complex compositions, which Millais seems to have found difficult. His best-known picture, Ophelia (1851-2; Tate Gallery, London), illustrates his working method during this time - the setting painted meticulously from nature during the summer and the figure added from a model in the studio during the winter - ready for the Royal Academy exhibition in May.

Growing Success

While he was painting the portrait of the eminent art critic John Ruskin, staged on a Scottish waterfall (1854; private collection), Millais fell in love with his sitter's wife, Effie. Soon after her divorce from Ruskin they married, and the first of eight children was born in 1856. Family commitments inevitably made Millais conscious of the need to sell his work, which he did with mounting success, earning by the 1880s some £30,000 a year.

In the later 1850s he created a series of pictures whose power lay in the evocation of a general mood rather than the description of a particular situation. The most atmospheric is Autumn Leaves (1856; City of Manchester Art Gallery), in which the budding youth of a group of girls is set against the seasonal decay of natural things: dead leaves burning at dusk. The conjunction was calculated to induce, he claimed, "the deepest religious reflection". Landscape and figures interact in a similar way in other works, such as The Blind Girl (1856; City of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery), in which the beauty of the scenery intensifies the subject's pathos, and The Vale of Rest (1859; Tate Gallery, London), a rather strange image of nuns digging a grave in the gathering gloom of evening.


Millais had always demonstrated an immense talent for drawing and his many finished pen-and-ink drawings of the earlier 1850s, for example The Race-Meeting (1853; Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), a scene reminiscent of contemporary novels, led him naturally to illustration, an art form he took up with the edition of Tennyson's poems published by Moxon in 1857. Throughout the 1860s he was a prolific illustrator, both for magazines, notably Once a Week, and for novels, especially those of Trollope.

Membership of Royal Academy

Millais' painting technique, already losing its Pre-Raphaelite meticulousness, became increasingly broad from now on, enabling him to work more quickly and on larger canvases. He admired English 18th-century portraitists and the Old Masters, and when in 1868 he was made a full member of the London Royal Academy, he named his presentation picture Souvenir of Velazquez (1868; Royal Academy of Arts, London). Another 19th century Royal Academician who became close friends with Millais was Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-73), the highly popular animal painter.

Portrait Painting

First in a line of portrait studies of single children - often his own - was My First Sermon (1863; Guildhall Art Gallery, London), depicting a little girl in a pew. Cherry Ripe (1879; private collection) in the style of Joshua Reynolds, the much more painterly manner of which exemplifies the evolution of Millais' style, was published as a fine art colour print, selling 600,000 copies. He also dealt in historical child-subjects such as The Boyhood of Raleigh (1870; Tate Gallery, London). Another category was the young lady in 18th-century costume; the painting Clarissa (1887; private collection), modeled by his daughter Sophie, imitates Gainsborough's portrait The Honourable Mrs Graham (1777; National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh).

Landscape Painting

Millais' first major pure landscape painting was Chill October (1870; private collection). Autumn and winter visits to Scotland, during which he did much hunting and shooting as well as landscape-painting, came to provide a welcome escape from the increasing pressures of his London portrait practice. His depictions of often rather bleak scenes were intended to suggest human sentiments, especially loneliness and a sense of the impassivity of Nature. They show technical subtlety in rendering effects of wind, dew, and mist, and sensitivity in capturing the mood of a certain season or time of day, as for example in Lingering Autumn (1890; Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight).

Hearts are Trumps (1872; Tate Gallery, London), showing three ladies around a card-table, is an early example of his society portraiture. Such luxuriously dressed female sitters exercised Millais' now bold and rich handling of paint. With male subjects he concentrated on the delineation of strong character in the features: for example in the two portraits of Gladstone (1879, National Portrait Gallery, London; and 1885, Christ Church, Oxford). Outline is a particularly telling aspect of his work, seen to effect in Mrs Jopling (1879; Collection of L.M. Jopling, on loan to the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford). With its three-quarter-length figure set against a plain background, this compares in simplicity of statement with contemporary work by the classical Impressionist Edouard Manet.

Later Life

Concerning Millais' several studies of old age, the patriotic North-West Passage (1874; Tate Gallery, London), which shows a retired sea-dog, is the most attractive, especially in its colouring. The Ruling Passion (1885; Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum), depicting a bedridden ornithologist, typifies Millais' later preference for dark tones and an overall impression of brownness. This is also seen in the late religious paintings, for instance St Stephen (1895; Tate Gallery, London).

Created a baronet in 1885, and elected President of the London Royal Academy in 1896, Millais commanded the highest personal popularity and professional esteem.

Paintings by John Everett Millais

Works by Sir John Everett Millais can be seen in the world's best art museums, including the Tate Collection London, the London Royal Academy of Arts, and the J Paul Getty Museum Los Angeles.

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