A New Acquisition for the Ashmolean : a Portrait of Ruskin by Millais

John Everett Millais (1829–1896),
John Ruskin, 1853-1854
Oil on Canvas - 78.7 x 68 cm
Oxford, Ashmolean Museum
Photo : Ashmolean Museum

21/5/13 - Oxford, Ashmolean Museum - The painting recently received as acceptance in lieu by the Ashmolean Museum is important for three reasons : the model, the artist and the context in which it was created. This portrait of Ruskin by John Everett Millais was in fact on view at the exhibition on the Pre-Raphaelites at the Tate Britain not long ago (see article, in French).
Millais started work on it during the summer of 1853 when invited by Ruskin to accompany him on a trip to Scotland, at Glen Finglas in the Trossachs. The writer, art critic and social reformer is shown standing, looking at the landscape in a scene somewhere between Naturalism and Symbolism, indeed reflecting his artistic theories. We also find the blend of poetry and reality, the minute detail to attention, dear to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and in particular to Millais, the author of the famous Ophelia as well as A Hugenot whose composition is somewhat similar. It took him a while to finish this landscape which he painted on location - in rather difficult weather conditions - and for which the model had given him strict instructions, later completing the central figure in his studio. Ruskin expressed his enthusiasm for the portrait in a letter to his father, praising the frame chosen by the artist, as well as the various details in the landscape : "Millais has fixed on this place, a lovely piece of worn rock, with foaming water and weeds, and moss, and a noble overhanging bank of dark crag, and I am to be standing looking quietly down the stream, just the sort of thing I used to do for hours together...We shall have the two most wonderful torrents in the world, Turner’s St. Gothard and Millais’s Glenfilas." He subsequently spoke out in support of the Pre-Raphaelites when they were strongly criticized for the works they exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1851.
The painting joins two other works at the Ashmolean which were exhibited in 1851 : The Return of the Dove to the Ark, also by Millais and Convent Thoughts by Charles Allston Collins. Ruskin’s portrait was not however exhibited at the Royal Academy as planned in 1854 ; the writer gave it to a friend from Oxford, Henry Wentworth Acland in 1871. It remained in this family until the descendants sold it for a record-breaking price at Christie’s in 1965 where it was purchased by the late owner.
We can understand why it was not put up for exhibition and why Millais struggled to finish it ; the artist had fallen in love with Ruskin’s wife, Effie, who left her husband for him.

Version française

Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges, jeudi 23 mai 2013

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