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Artist in Profile (July ’15): John Everett Millais

John Everett Millais

John Everett Millais - Self Portrait

John Everett Millais – Self Portrait (1881)

John Everett Millais was a technically brilliant English painter and one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Amongst many of his well-known works is “Ophelia” for which he used Elizabeth Siddal the wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti who was a poet, model and artist in her own right. She posed fully clothed in a bathtub of water for hours at a time for the painting and suffered a severe cold, charging the doctor’s bill to Millais.

Early Life

Millais was born in 1829 in Southampton, the son of John William Millais, who was a gentleman with wealth from an established Jersey family. His mother’s family were also prosperous being saddlers and harness makers. Millais was considered something of a child prodigy and went to London aged 9 years attending Sass’s Art School where he achieved a silver medal at the Society of Arts.

By the age of eleven, Millais had the accolade of being the youngest student to attend the Royal Academy School. The famous Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was started at the Millais family home and Millais himself became famous as an exponent of the style of painting. He came to London in 1838, was sent to Sass’s Art School, and won a silver medal at the Society of Arts at the age of nine. A child prodigy, at the age of eleven Millais became the youngest student to enter the Royal Academy Schools.

Pre-Raphaelites

Millais - Ophelia (detail)

Ophelia (detail, 1852)

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded at his parents’ house in London with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Holman Hunt. Millais became the most famous exponent of the style, The Pre –Raphaelites painted with simplicity and innocence which they believed encompassed the spirit of medieval art. They implicitly believed in vivid colour and accuracy. “Isabella” was the first of Pre-Raphaelite works by Millais followed by “Christ in The House of His Parents” which was highly controversial as it realistically portrayed the Holy Family as working class in an unkempt carpenter’s workshop. Charles Dickens described the work as “the lowest depths of what is mean, repulsive, and revolting.” However, the work found favour with John Ruskin an art critic who championed Millais and became his friend.

Millais’ images of sensual beauty and stoic women and sensuous beauties captured the Victorian ideals of veiled eroticism and spirituality and these works are iconic. His painting “Ophelia” (below) is typical of this. During the painting of “Ophelia” Millais really suffered for his art spending up to 11 hours a day on the banks of the Hogsmill River in Surrey to perfect the natural beauty of the setting. He was bitten by flies and battered by weather and even taken before magistrates for trespassing and spoiling hay. As winter approached Millais constructed himself a hut covered in straw to protect him from the elements. Eventually the painting was sold for 300 guineas to an art dealer. Today it has an estimated worth of £30 million pounds.

Change of Style

Bubbles after Millais by G.H Every - 1887

Bubbles after Millais by G.H Every – 1887. Photo by Martin Beek, licensed under CC BY 2.0

During the late 1850s John Everett Millais moved away from the style of the Pre-Raphaelites. Later works were to bring Millais great success making him one of the richest artists of the day. His change of style has also been attributed to change in his personal life, particularly when he married Effie Chalmers who had been married to John Ruskin. The married couple settled in Perth, Scotland and they had eight children, eventually returning to London in 1861.

In London, Millais became popular as a portrait painter and during 1855 and 1864 Millais illustrated for magazines and books including volumes of Tennyson’s poems and Anthony Trollope novels. He was also popular as a painter of children’s portraits and his subject “Bubbles” became famous as a Pears soap advertisement. He painted many well-known subjects including Lillie Langtry and Prime Ministers Gladstone and Disraeli.

From 1870 onwards, Millais demonstrates his reverence for old masters in his work. Many subjects were historical indicating his interest in the history of the British Empire. William Morris was a detractor of this new style accusing Millais of “selling out” for wealth and popularity.

Continuing success saw John Everett Millais created a baronet and in 1896 he became the Royal Academy of Arts President. Sadly this crowning glory was short lived and he died later on in the year 1896. He is buried at St Pauls Cathedral.

Christ in the House of his Parents (1850)

Christ in the House of his Parents (1850)

2 Responses to “Artist in Profile (July ’15): John Everett Millais”

  1. jennie farley says:

    Another wonderful artist biog and paintings from deepspacworks. John Everett Millais, I love the gossip about the pre-Raphaelites I’m sure they’d have been fun (as well as an absolute ightmare) to have been amongst. Kelmscot Manor in Oxfordshire is worth a visit. Thanks Su.

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