Sunday, 20 September 2009
John Millais is the most paradoxical of Britain’s major Victorian artists, Already recognized in his teens as prodigiously gifted, he chose to risk everything by becoming a founder-member of the Pre-Raphaelites, a revolutionary group of neo-primitive painters who, despite the support offered to them by John Ruskin, the most influential critic of the day, risked being treated as outcasts by the ruling artistic establishment.
He stole Ruskin’s young wife Effie – the marriage had never been consummated because of the critic’s neurosis – and became the most celebrated painter of the mid-Victorian epoch, author of immensely popular genre pictures with strong narrative themes. He also made portraits or some of the most eminent men of his time – Gladstone, Disraeli, Tennyson and the historian Thomas Carlyle. He finished his career with a minor hereditary title (it was the first time any British artist had been honored in this way) and had a brief spell as President of the Royal Academy but succumbed to cancer only a few months after his election.
The Pre-Raphaelites continue to be cult figures in Britain, and Millais benefits from this. Yet he is also seen as the man who betrayed the cause – a betrayal symbolized by ‘Bubbles’, an image of a small boy in fancy dress, which became an immensely successful advertisement for a soap manufacturer.
The retrospective exhibition now on view at Tate Britain makes prodigious efforts to revive the reputation of the later Millais, and to offer proof that he was a significantly innovative artist throughout the whole length of his career. It demonstrates, for example, that he was the true pioneer of the late Victorian Aesthetic Movement, which in turn led the way towards the international Symbolist Movement in art. ‘Autumn Leaves’, from 1855-6, showing five girls preparing an autumnal bonfire, stands at the beginning of a line of descent that can be traced through the work of Burne-Jones and Beardsley to finish in that of the Picasso of the Blue and Rose periods. ‘Autumn Leaves’ is the legitimate grandparent of Picasso’s ‘Les Saltimbanques’, now in the National Gallery in Washington.
The effort is successful on an intellectual level, but not somehow on an emotional one. A number of the early paintings do have a memorable intensity. An extraordinary example is ‘The Blind Girl’ of 1854-6, which makes the spectator empathize with the condition of blindness through intensity of seeing - the very sense that the subject of the painting does not possess. Equally dazzling is the recently re-discovered small portrait of Millais’s sister-in-law Sophie Gray . This has all the impact of a top-quality Flemish portrait of the late 15th century, without being any way archaistic.
What, then, is the problem with the later work? It seems to me that there are several problems, rather than one. One is that Millais gets lured into pastiche. ‘Bubbles’ is a pastiche of an 18th century ‘fancy picture’, of the kind sometimes painted by Reynolds and Gainsborough, with young children as their subjects. More often than not, these artists were, in their turn, making versions of Van Dyck.. ‘In the Tate show, Bubbles’ is accompanied by one or two other examples of the same thing – for example by ‘Cherry Ripe’, which is a more or less direct steal from Reynolds’s 1788 portrait of the infant Penelope Boothby. The note struck by Millais’s version is subtly but unmistakably false. It pushes sentiment just an inch or two further than the Reynolds original, with results that are artistically fatal.
Another problem is that he is never very interesting from a compositional point of view. His major late story-telling compositions, such as ‘The Boyhood of Raleigh’ [1869-70] and ‘The Northwest Passage’  are efficient, but not intense – they semaphore meanings, but have no inner life. The Victorians found them inspiring because they reflected Victorian patriotic sentiments and the Victorian view of Britain’s role in world history. Now they tend to seem inert.
This inertia also affects the ambitious portraits of the 1870s and 1880s. The portrait of the artist Louise Jopling, who was a close friend, is an exception. It stands out thanks to its freshness. If the Jopling portrait reminds one of Sargent this is significant – it recalls not only Sargent’s flash and dazzle (qualities usually missing from Millais’s portrait work) but Sargent’s gift for vivid characterization. In general, whatever Millais attempts in terms of grand full-length or three-quarter length portraiture, the younger artist does much better. Too many of Millais’s likenesses of Victorian grandees betray a profound lack of enthusiasm for the task of portraying his subjects – they are efficient, technically flawless, dutiful and dull.
Millais ended his life as a painter, not just of figures, but also of large-scale landscapes. The organizers of the show place great stress on these as an original contribution to the British landscape tradition. They are all Scottish autumnal views, usually with little or nothing in the way of additional human incident. Large in scale, they disregard the then-established conventions for the depiction of landscape. Ruskin accurately wrote of one of them, ‘The Fringe of the Moor’ , that it showed a “rude and apparently motiveless veracity”. I think the curators would like one to see these paintings as offering parallels to the Impressionist experiments being made in France at the same time. In fact, there is no resemblance. However they do, though only rather wanly, remind me of certain landscape paintings by Courbet, which are ‘naturalistic’ and hostile to established artistic convention in rather the same way. What is lacking is Courbet’s titanic energy. Millais’s landscapes seem to hold up a mirror to the artist’s spiritual emptiness.
Taken as whole, the retrospective offers a portrait of an artist with brilliant gifts who consistently failed to make the best use of them.
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