PRINT September 2007


Tim Barringer on John Everett Millais

THE HISTORY OF ART can no longer articulate a compelling narrative of the birth of modern painting, leaving a lacuna in our understanding of the nineteenth century. Even New York’s Museum of Modern Art has abandoned the heroic but hackneyed story in which Impressionism’s liberated brushstroke prefigures Pollock’s triumph of pure paint. The social history of art, on the other hand, has moved from the status of critique to that of orthodoxy, with every sophomore able to reduce the masterworks of Manet and Degas to glib one-liners about flaneurs and prostitutes.

New interpretations of the nineteenth century are desperately needed—a breakthrough possible only through the consideration of a broader cast of artistic characters. An enlarged canon can better reveal the vibrancy and sheer strangeness of the art produced in that turbulent era. Museums tend to forget that rich and resonant work was created in virtually every region of Europe—not just in Paris.

A suggestive example is John Everett Millais, a painter of spectacular facility, inventiveness, and humanity, celebrated in a retrospective opening this month at London’s Tate Britain. The name of the group to which he briefly belonged from 1848 to 1853—the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood—does, of course, have brand recognition and indeed once ranked as high in modernist demonology as it does today in popular esteem. The last time Millais was the subject of a monographic exhibition was in 1967, at the Royal Academy, when he was a hit in Swinging London. His early works spoke directly to an audience that included many a neurasthenic teenager with long, gingery hair. But Pre-Raphaelitism is, of course, more than a precursor of flower power.

The Pre-Raphaelites were revivalists of medieval and Renaissance art; they were sensualists and fantasists, exploring the erotic and the arcane. But—and here is the crucial paradox—they were also iconoclastic painters of the modern world in the era of the daguerreotype, perceiving their quotidian, often suburban, surroundings as an anarchic assemblage of details to be represented in supersaturated industrial pigments. They aimed to overturn three hundred years of academic tradition by rejecting the heritage of Raphael and Michelangelo and by painting (in John Ruskin’s words) “stern facts” instead of “fair pictures.” The results often scandalized Victorian taste: In Christ in the House of His Parents, 1849–50, Millais depicted the holy family in a nonidealized manner, at work in a carpentry shop; the tired, careworn figure of the Virgin Mary put Charles Dickens in mind of an aging French prostitute.

The new Tate show demonstrates that, even as a teenager, Millais produced works of fierce originality. Although he was a prizewinning student at the Royal Academy, no one could mistake Isabella, 1848–49, for an “academic” painting; anything but slick, its jagged lines translate into paint the gothic ferocity of Millais’s early pen and pencil drawings. A fascination with ornamented surfaces and a deliberate subversion of academic conventions of perspective mark out this work’s radicalism. Based on Boccaccio’s tale of intrigue, jealousy, and murder, the painting—its brilliant, pure colors mixed into a wet, white ground in a quirky emulation of fresco technique typical of the youthful Pre-Raphaelites—crackles with sexual energy.

At the core of the Tate’s exhibition is Millais’s Portrait of John Ruskin, 1853–54, from a private collection. The rarely seen painting is a manifesto in which the aesthetic and ecological theories laid out in Ruskin’s watershed Modern Painters are articulated visually with astonishing technical bravura. As much a portrait of the strata of Scottish granite, the flow of water, and the local flora as it is of the critic himself, the work underlines Ruskin’s pantheistic belief that scientific scrutiny of the world would yield moral, spiritual, and social insights. Millais spent months painting it in a ravine at Glenfinlas in Scotland, martyring himself to Highland mosquitoes in the process.

Soon after, Millais (before Whistler and Rossetti) emerged as a pioneer of aestheticism’s creed of art for art’s sake, gradually abandoning narrative and social commentary in favor of exquisitely crafted paintings exploring the formal and tonal possibilities of the medium. A pivotal work, Autumn Leaves, 1855–56, is a tone poem in which burning leaves and the dying of the day and the year contrast with the youth of a group of girls, the oldest on the verge of adolescence. Some of Millais’s greatest achievements from this period, however, are simple portrait studies, such as the startling image of fourteen-year-old Sophie Gray, 1857: an act of pure painting bereft of narrative or sentimentalism.

The 1967 Royal Academy exhibition glossed over the artist’s later works, which often (as in the iconic imperial image The Boyhood of Raleigh, 1869–70) reached out to a broad, popular audience, sometimes in a frankly commercial spirit. The present curatorial team—Jason Rosenfeld, the foremost authority on Pre-Raphaelite landscapes, and the Tate’s Alison Smith, a curator of “The Victorian Nude,” which made a splash at the Brooklyn Museum in 2002—are daring in their decision to show his whole oeuvre. In the 1860s, Millais began a series of portraits of children, some psychologically telling but others sentimental “fancy pictures” with titles like Cherry Ripe, 1879. But the crucial revelation of this exhibition is a final group of late, elegiac landscapes: No longer Ruskinian essays in fanatical empiricism, they are melancholy symbolist explorations of the wild emptiness of the Scottish highlands. In misty evocations such as Dew-Drenched Furze, 1889–90, Millais finally reunites the visionary and the realist elements in nineteenth-century culture, providing a staggering and unexpected climax to the show.

Alas, this groundbreaking exhibition does not travel to the United States; with the Dahesh Museum no longer mounting ambitious exhibitions and with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s nineteenth-century galleries closed for renovation and expansion until December (is it too much to hope that the tired conceptualization underpinning the old galleries will be radically rethought?), New York is especially poorly served in this area of art. The perplexing cornucopia of work on display at Tate Britain—much of it newly cleaned, and some rescued from storage—offers a renewed vision not merely of the art of Victorian England but of the nineteenth century as a whole.

“Millais” will be on view at Tate Britain Sept. 26, 2007– Jan. 13, 2008, and travels to the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Feb. 15–May 13, 2008; Kitakyushu Municipal Museum of Art, Japan, June 7–Aug. 17, 2008; and the Bunkamura Museum of Art, Aug. 30–Oct. 26, 2008.

Tim Barringer is Paul Mellon Professor of the History of Art at Yale University.