Millais, John Everett (1829-1896)

Sir John Everett Millais (8 June 1829, Southampton – 13 August 1896, London) was one of the founders of the revolutionary Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. A child prodigy gifted by nature and awarded with the Royal Academy medals, Millais together with his like-minded people defied traditional art and started to paint nature and people in the open air as they are. But despite such audacity, he received all possible and unprecedented honours available to an artist in England during his life.

Stylistic features of John Everett Millais’s art: According to the code of the Pre-Raphaelite brothers, young English artists should forget about the art that followed Raphael and over the several centuries became a series of lifeless imitations of the classic original. Millais drenched in the rain, gave himself over to midges, suffered from cold autumn winds, caught a cold to paint buttercups, camomile’s, and water surface so accurately in order not to distort nature in a single detail. Relatives and friends posed for him as he carefully sought the likeness and naturalness of the depicted subjects. Millais was glorified by his rebellious painting, and in the second half of his life he was forced to reap the fruits of this glory, working on countless portraits of the high society commissioned to him.

Everything happened too early in John Everett Millais’s life: apprenticeship, rebellion, recognition, marriage, children, fame, money, titles, grandchildren, finally, creative fatigue, exhausting demand, and amazing performance, in any of these moments. He was a real celebrity and the most beloved artist of the British in the 19th century. Our contemporaries, who suddenly discovered the art of the Pre-Raphaelites after the centuries of courteous indifference (this does not apply to England – they always loved the Pre-Raphaelites), know Millais by two grandiose acts: he painted Ophelia and stole the wife of the eminent critic Ruskin. In fact, the artist’s life deserves a more detailed story. You can still argue which act is more impressive: to beat off his wife from Ruskin or to enter the Royal Academy at 11 years old.

Short cut

Millais’s classmates gave him the nickname Kid – he was the youngest student in the history of the Royal Academy schools. When the boy was 9 years old, his parents moved to London from south Southampton only because his son’s talent was obvious – and clearly needed to be developed as soon as possible. His drawings were shown to the then President of the Academy Martin Archer Shee, the boy received a blessing and was sent to study at the best art school. In his first year of studies, he received the Silver Medal of the Society of Arts and drove the jury to numbness when he approached to receive it. He was very small for such an award.

So at 11 Millais was admitted to the Academy. Little John had a good luck – no jumps, balls, tag, and other stupid games distracted him from serious academic studies. It so happened that by the end of the academy and by his 17th birthday, he managed to take part in exhibitions, got a few more medals and realized that traditional paintings were well boring and lifeless.


Among the three students of the Academy who founded the secret Pre-Raphaelites Brotherhood, Millais was the most prominent and promising, albeit the youngest. The other two only took their first steps in art but moved confidently. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Holman Hunt and Millais decided, not more, not less, to change the whole British art. And for this it was necessary to forget everything that happened in the last 300 years – and return to before Raphael art, to the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance. And it would also be nice to find a patron who would explain to the dismayed viewers that these three persons could make a coup, they did not just clown around.

At first, unexpectedly bright colours and naturalistic images of the Pre-Raphaelites were condescendingly attributed to their youth and ineptitude. But it soon became clear that this was a dangerous and well-informed rebellion: the artists have improved their methods, persistently repeated them and, among other things, began to uphold them in their own Journal «The Germ». And when in 1850 Millais offered the painting “Christ in the Parental Home” for an exhibition at the Royal Academy, he would already heard the first ridicule and insults. The main complaint about the artwork was that the members of the Holy Family were depicted as simple hard workers, that their heels were dirty, their hands were strained, and the workshop was buried in garbage. On the side of the charge – Charles Dickens himself, on the defence side – John Ruskin himself.

John Ruskin was one of the most influential writers, a convincing art critic, artist. He had already made Turner famous and recognized – and now he stood up for the Pre-Raphaelites. Ruskin saw that these young rebels perfectly implemented the main values that he preached: loyalty to nature, a thorough study of the structure of everything in the world, meticulous, almost scientific, attention to any, even the tiniest, detail.

Millais was obsessed with this accuracy – in the next few years he would spend in an open air every day from morning till night. Seasons change – and in one of his paintings all summer and autumn flowers bloom at once, but they are painted so true that botany professors will soon bring students to study the structure of plants from his paintings. Parents, friends, their sisters and lovers, saleswomen and prostitutes pose for him for human figures. John Ruskin was admired for his skill and dedication so much that he recommended Millais to be an academician and asked to paint his portrait. Millais became academician at 24 as it was not allowed to make it at an earlier age by the charter. And he will fall in love with Ruskin’s wife that same year – before it was not possible to get to know her better.

The best Scottish landscape

Effie Ruskin, already in London, posed for Millais for the painting “The Order of Release” and wrote to her mother about how talented and attractive the artist was, that she with her husband and this young portrait painter would go to the waterfall in Scotland, where they would live together in a rented cottage .

Ruskin sensibly reasoned that Millais would be working on the landscape, without distorting it in a single blade of grass, for a long time. He left him to do business and went to Edinburgh to give lectures on contemporary art. Effie stayed in the cottage with Millais for a long time.

The portrait was completed and took honorary place in the Ruskin’s drawing room, Ruskin’s first university lectures had a huge success and inspired him to continue teaching, John Everett Millais made many brilliant illustrations for his patron’s lectures on architecture, Effie proved her virginity to the doctor and lawyer as an argument, allowing her to file for divorce. For 5 years of marriage, the husband never agreed to sexual intimacy with her.

A year later Millais and Effie got married, and Ruskin called the new paintings of his former protege a nightmare and disaster.

Full package

A big house, eight charming children, a cloudless family life, annual holidays in Scotland, a gold medal at the World Exhibition in Paris, the Legion of Honour, three other important orders, honorary membership in art academies almost throughout Europe, the title of baronet ( for the first time in history for an artist), Ph.D. at Oxford, an offer from the Uffizi Gallery to replenish its collection of the artists’ self-portraits. Millais received such a powerful and comprehensive avalanche of fame and privileges that even in dreams he had nothing to add. Even the first pictorial image used for advertising belonged specifically to Millais: The Baby Blowing Soap Bubbles, decorated the soap advertising posters. While some of his bohemian peers hallucinated and tried to commit suicide in opium frenzy, and others searched for the meaning of life in the Far Eastern pilgrimages, changed their lovers and squandered money, John Everett Millais moved up to the higher steps along the not very familiar in English society ladder.

At the same time, his contemporaries told that unprecedented fame and fortune did not affect neither the charm of his personality nor his work activity. The artist himself said that he did not stop drawing for a single day, and there were more and more commissions that were impossible to refuse: lords, dukes, barons, their wives, and children wanted their portraits by the famous Millais. He, rather in all, unintentionally developed certain patterns for these flattering commissions – with the poses, facial expressions, clothes repeated from one work to another. When planning large Millais exhibitions, modern curators find difficulties in arranging the show, as after a hall with early Pre-Raphaelite botanically accurate, erotic and tragic paintings, they have to direct the audience into rather boring and monotonous halls with melancholic Scottish landscapes, golden-haired children and waist-length portraits of all British prime ministers and lords in an unchanged black coat.

Gossips had it that Effie demanded considerable money from her husband for the maintenance of the house and children, which forced him to agree to profitable, though boring commissions. But this was likely a fiction. Bypassing the prestigious training in Oxford and not being able to boast of a noble family tree, John Everett Millais became a man who in the first posthumous biography would be called “a typical Englishman, in the best sense, with all the physical and intellectual features that allowed our nation to rise above the whole world.”

Six months before his death, Millais was offered to head the Royal Academy of Arts – he agreed, despite the fact that he was very ill. The artist had throat cancer and a complicated operation added only two months to his life. Experiencing constant severe pain, he did not stop to paint because squeezing paint on the palette and making the first touch on a primed canvas was the most natural and life-saving task, as he remembered, from his early childhood.

Author: Anna Sidelnikova

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