John Everett Millais: 3 Paintings

John Everett Millais [1829–1896] was a British painter and a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He fused realism and romanticism in his paintings, and is known for his striking portraits and dramatic scenes in paintings. Some of his well-known paintings include Ophelia [1851] and The Princes in the Tower [1878], and he also painted such historic and fictional personages as Joan of Arc, Cinderella and Isabella (from John Keats’s poem).

I. Apple Blossoms/Spring [1859]

This painting seems to celebrate the coming of spring, youth and merriment, showing eight girls relaxing on the green lawn under the apple blossoms. The girls are all dressed in different-coloured dresses taking their refreshments. However, the painting also has one disturbing connotation. In the right-hand corner, there is a scythe, a tool which has notoriously been associated with death. The girl in the yellow dress lying on the grass also makes the painting a little eerie as her gaze is directed straight on to the viewer, challenging them to return the stare as she carelessly plays with a a grass stem in her mouth. The scythe, which is probably intentionally situated near the girl dressed in black, seems to hint at the idea that even the most joyful and healthy beings must come to an end and every representation of beauty must, by nature, hide a more sinister meaning.

II. Mariana [1851]

Mariana is a girl in Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure [1604] who was engaged to marry a man Angelo, but who refused to marry her when her brother (and her dowry) was lost at sea. Five years later, she has an opportunity to consummate “the marriage”. Alfred Tennyson’s poem Mariana [1830] is also based on the play, and when the painting was first exhibited, this line from the poem was presented alongside it: “She only said, ‘My life is dreary/He cometh not,’ she said/She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,’/ I would that I were dead!“. The painting has a striking use of colour as Millais also showcases his attention to detail (especially as it is seen in the embroidery on the table). Mariana in the paining appears tired, and both melancholy and anxious at the same time. There is a feeling that she has been “imprisoned” in the room for quite some time, and the autumnal leaves in the painting give it a sadder connotation still as the stained glass in the window, showing the Annunciation scene, hints at both the fruitless awaiting (of the word) of her beloved and at her undying loyalty.

III. Somnambulist [1871]

In this painting, a young woman dressed for bed, is sleepwalking. She is presented near a cliff and is oblivious to her surroundings, which means only a few steps separate her from death. In her hand, she carried a brass candlestick with an extinguished candle. The darkness that surrounds her, as well as the blank expression on her face and the “unseeing” eyes, give this painting a very unsettling feel. The girl appears to be totally engulfed in her own world of dream. There is also something unnatural in the mere fact of this girl being found at night and in her night dress outside, at the mercy of all the nature’s elements, especially so in the nineteenth century with its strict rules of etiquette and propriety.

Millais probably drew inspiration for this painting from both James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s painting The White Girl [1861] and from Vincenzo Bellini’s opera La Sonnambula [1831]. The latter tells of Amina, a girl who sleepwalks across a mill bridge in the final act. In literature, William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth [1606] and Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula [1897] have incidents of sleepwalking, and in film, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari) [1920] and Viridiana [1961] provide some striking examples of sleepwalking. In the former, a hypnotist uses a somnambulist to commit murders.


14 thoughts on “John Everett Millais: 3 Paintings

  1. All the pictures are really quite disturbing. After reading their descriptions, it becomes clear how this is achieved. Thank.
    Although at the first there is such a welcome spring, which you always look forward to at the end of winter. And even a braid does not interfere with the joy of anticipating spring.

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  2. Thanks for the analyses of some details of these Millais works, pieces I wasn’t as familiar with as I’d like to be. By the way, I assume the Apple Blossoms painting was designed to hint at myth as much as the others referenced drama and opera: I’m immediately reminded of the Isle of Avalon where the dead go to in the company of queens (or perhaps rather fairy queens).

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