|Twins (Kate and Grace Hoare), 1876, oil on canvas, 61³⁄₈ X 45¹⁄₂ in.|
Though Sir John Everett Millais is best remembered today for his Pre-Raphaelite paintings, it was his portrait work in the latter half of the 19th century which brought the artist his true recognition and success. For many reviewers, Millais' time as a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was considered either merely an early diversion, or a "period of technical preparation for the great works that were yet to come."¹ By the 1880s, "his career was interpreted as a great and magisterial progression, moving from success to success, to a glorious maturity in which he was found to rival the greatest artists of the past."²
|Ophelia, 1851-2, oil on canvas, 30 X 44 in.|
Immediately following his death, however, he became the subject of derision, and the popularity of his latter works came to be considered - by the newly formed class of professional art critics - an indicator of Millais' betrayal of the dignity of art.³ He had "renounced the revolutionary affiliations of his youth, to become the most popular and most highly remunerated painter in England,"and in so doing, "threw over the greatest promise of any artist of the century."⁴ It was this appeal to the masses which relegated Millais' portraits to near obscurity.
|Sir Henry Thompson, 1881, oil on canvas, 49½ X 36 in.|
Whether or not Millais' portraits will regain their respect is uncertain. Even when Victorian paintings were rediscovered in the 1960s, and the Pre-Raphaelites were exalted, Millais' seldom publicly-seen portraits were considered lacking in aesthetic intellect. Attempts to reassess these works since the sixties have so far not succeeded; the earlier criticisms have been too difficult to escape. There is hope, however, that the paintings' historical significance will bring these works to light, and allow them to be re-evaluated as works of art.
|John Henry, Cardinal Newman, 1881, oil on canvas, 47¾ X 37½ in.|
Author and artist John Collier was a contemporary and friend of J.E. Millais, and in 1905, while disparaging remarks were still being made of Millais' late paintings, Collier remembered the man who had made such a mark on British art. In his book, The Art of Portrait Painting, Collier, who had seen Millais at work, had this to share about the artist's methods:
"In life-sized portraits he always put the canvas side by side with the sitter, and walked backwards and forwards for a considerable distance - putting on a touch and then going back to look at the effect. If it was not right he would come forward again to modify it. This modification he often did with his finger. I may add - though this hardly applies to his portraiture, which was nearly always done the size of life - that with figures under life size, he placed his canvas so much in front of the model that the painting, when looked at from the furthest distance of his walk, appeared precisely of the same size as the model.
Of course, all painters try to get away from their work from time to time, in order to judge of the general effect. But Millais carried this principle very far. As he told me once, 'I like to get far enough away from my portrait to see it the size of a postage stamp ; I then know if it is right or not.'
It is also unusual to keep the canvas during the whole operation side by side with the sitter. For one thing, it restricts the choice of lighting, as the best light for the sitter might not be a possible light for the canvas. As a matter of fact, most of Millais's portraits are lit from the side, probably for this very reason."
|Mary Chamberlain, 1891, oil on canvas, 52 X 39 in.|
"His studio, during his latter period, was a very long room with lofty side windows but with no regular top-light such as was almost universally employed by the older portrait painters, with the exception of Velasquez, whose studio at the time that he painted 'Les Meninas' seems to have been much like that of Millais.
Probably for such a convinced realist as Millais, a top-light would have been too conventional, too unlike the conditions under which people are usually seen."
|Sisters, 1868, oil on canvas, 42 X 42 in.|
"At the same time, with that inconsistency that often goes with genius, when his sitters were supposed to be out of doors, he seldom troubled about getting a true out-of-door effect. In this again he resembled Velasquez, and, indeed, all the older painters."
|Archibald Philip Primrose, 5th Earl of Roseberry, 1886, oil on canvas, 49½ X 37½ in.|
"To return to Millais's technique, his method of putting the sitter side by side with the canvas had the undoubted advantage of giving an immediate comparison between the picture and the model under the most favourable conditions, and so conduces to the vividness and life-likeness of the portraiture. But it is troublesome to carry out, and there is a great temptation not to go far enough back. Also the execution suffers ; hurried dabs put on at the end of a walk, and afterwards corrected with the finger, can hardly have the masterly technique of paint deliberately applied by an artist standing quietly at his canvas.
Nevertheless, Millais's technique was extraordinarily vigorous and expressive, although it did lack the deliberate precision of the old masters."
|Alfred Tennyson, 1881, oil on canvas, 50 X 36½ in.|
"It was one of Millais's essential principles that the picture had to be right - that is, true in drawing and colour - and although in his later period he was one of the most rapid of painters, he would spare no time or trouble to get it right."
|Miss Eveleen Tennant, 1874, oil on canvas, 55¾ x 44¾ in.|
"For instance, for the portrait of Miss Eveleen Tennant (now Mrs. Frederic Myers) he had some eighty or ninety sittings. This was because something went wrong with it, and it took him all that time to get it right - and this labour was not thrown away, for in the end it turned out to be one of the most brilliant of his numerous representations of beautiful women.
It will be seen... that the colouring is very rich, and that the pose and expression have a straightforward simplicity which, to me, are quite as charming as the somewhat mannered grace of the earlier English masters."
|Nina Lehmann, 1868-9, oil on canvas, 51¾ X 34½ in.|
"To take another instance, in Mrs. Grote's life of her husband she complains bitterly of the number of sittings that Millais insisted on for his portrait of the great historian.
I remember talking to Millais about this. 'Oh, yes,' he replied. 'She says I killed him. It was all because I got the ear too high, and couldn't find out what was the matter for a long time.'"
|Kate Perugini, 1880, oil on canvas, 49 X 31 in.|
"There is an excellent saying of his, to Mr. Stuart Wortley as quoted in the 'Life and Letters' -
'It doesn't matter how beautifully a thing is painted, it is no good if it isn't right - it's got to come out' ; and again, 'What does it matter how you do it? Paint it with a shovel if you can't get your effect any other way.'
On the other hand, if the work went right from the beginning, Millais was a very rapid painter."
|William Ewart Gladstone, 1879, oil on canvas, 49½ X 36 in.|
"He never did anything better than the portrait of Mr. Gladstone, which was done in some five or six hours. The distinguished French painter, Monsieur Benjamin-Constant, described it in the Magazine of Art as 'the finest portrait of the time.' He says 'This painting can hold its own as a work of art by the side of the greatest masters of the past ; Rembrandt himself could not injure it by juxtaposition. ... Never has life been set on canvas with greater power, nor so large an existence been presented with a touch, a sweep of the brush.'*
|William Ewart Gladstone (detail)|
Millais very seldom made any preliminary sketches for his portraits. After very roughly indicating the position of the figure, he would paint the head straight on the white canvas, just smudging a tone round it, to represent background. The first painting was with the full vigour of the palette, the subsequent ones merely modifications of it. There is one other point with regard to Millais's procedure that I should like to emphasise. In a letter from Mr. Gladstone, no doubt referring to the very portrait just (mentioned), occurs this passage : 'I was at once struck with a characteristic which seemed to me to mark him off from all other artists (and they have in my long life been many) to whom I have sat. It was the intensity with which he worked, and which, so far as I may judge, I have never seen equalled.'
I am convinced that this intensity is very essential to the portrait painter. Whether the sittings be few or many the work should always be done under high pressure ; only in this way can that vitality be achieved which is so important for his art."⁵
*Magazine of Art, 1900, p. 152.
|Hearts are Trumps (Elizabeth, Diana, and Beatrice Armstrong), 1872, oil on canvas, 65¼ X 86½ in.|
¹ Peter Funnell, Malcolm Warner, Kate Flint, H.C.G. Matthew, and Leonée Ormond, Millais : Portraits, 1999, (Princeton University Press, New Jersey), p. 21.
² Ibid., p.20.
³ Ibid., p. 25.
⁴ Ibid., p. 15.
⁵ John Collier, The Art of Portrait Painting, (Cassell and Company, Ltd., New York), pp. 60-63.