Millais the artist


J. E. Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents, 1849–50


J. E. Millais, Ophelia, 1851–52


J. E. Millais, A Huguenot, 1852


J. E. Millais, Thomas Carlyle, 1877

A prodigy in childhood, John Everett Millais was destined for the Victorian art world from a remarkably young age. His family moved from Jersey to London when Millais was nine years old to provide him with the necessary resources for a professional career as an artist. During this time, he attended Henry Sass Academy, which prepared boys for entrance into the schools of the Royal Academy. In 1840, when he was eleven, Millais became the youngest student ever admitted to the Royal Academy Schools. After that, Millais’s reputation as an artist continued to build at a rapid pace; in 1846, he exhibited Pizarro Seizing the Inca of Peru in the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition, and the following year he won the gold medal for best historical painting for The Tribe of Benjamin Seizing the Inca.

In 1848, Millais and a group of like-minded colleagues formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB). Disenchanted with contemporary British painting, the PRB believed that art ought to truthfully represent nature rather than follow academic traditions. Pre-Raphaelite art is characterized by an obsessive attention to detail, a high color palette, and abundant symbolism. Although Millais followed the Victorian tradition of painting religious and literary themes, many of his Pre-Raphaelite works were harshly received by the critics, as Charles Dickens’s severe denunciation of Christ in the House of his Parents in his magazine Household Words attests:

In the foreground of that carpenter's shop is a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed-gown, who appears to have received a poke in the hand, from the stick of another boy with whom he has been playing in an adjacent gutter, and to be holding it up for the contemplation of a kneeling woman, so horrible in her ugliness that (supposing it were possible for any human creature to exist for a moment with that dislocated throat) she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin shop in England.

Nevertheless, Millais continued to thrive as an artist; his 1852 painting A Huguenot paved the way for his election as an associate of the Royal Academy the following year.

In 1855, Millais married Effie Ruskin and moved to Perth, in Scotland, where the couple remained for six years. During his time there Millais experimented with paintings more important for the mood they evoked than for the subject they portrayed, such as Autumn Leaves (1856), A Dream of the Past: Sir Isumbras at the Ford (1857), and The Vale of Rest (1859). Although these works proved difficult to sell, Millais found success in engravings of his own works and illustrations for such publications as the Moxon edition of Tennyson’s poems (1857), the magazine Once a Week (from 1859), and several novels by Anthony Trollope.

Millais and his family returned to London in 1861 and lived at 7 Cromwell Place in Kensington. In 1863 he was elected a full member of the Royal Academy. In addition to his academic success, Millais achieved popular acclaim with his paintings of children, such as Bubbles (1886), and beautiful women, such as Stella (1868). In the early 1870s, he also developed a highly lucrative portrait practice, with sitters including Thomas Carlyle (1877), W. E. Gladstone (1879 and 1885), and Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1881). These successes helped Millais fund the construction of his custom-built studio house at No. 2 Palace Gate in Kensington, where he spent the remainder of his life. He was always a faithful member of the Royal Academy, and his loyalty led to his election as president after the death of Frederic, Lord Leighton, in 1896. Millais's post was short-lived, however, because the artist died six months later. 

 -Jenifer Norwalk