London, Tate Britain, from 26 September 2007 to 13 January 2008 ; then Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum, from 15 February 2008 to 18 May 2008

1. John Everett Millais (1829-1896)
A Huguenot on St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1851-1852
Oil on canvas - 92,7 x 61,6 cm
Collection Makins
Photo : Wikipedia

Crowds are flooding the Tate Britain and museum goers will never feel lonely when visiting the seven galleries composing this amazing exhibition. Even the late landscapes, the last moment of a well-paced tour which is perfectly presented, seduce art lovers, ready to forgive the head of the pre-Raphaelite school whatever he attempted. Obviously, John Everett Millais maintains his power of attraction on the English public. There are no breaks in a successful career which brought wealth and fame to the artist starting in the late 1850’s. It consisted, as is well known, of an abundant and varied production, closely managing mechanical reproductions and exerting the ability to reach his admirers by any means possible. Much can, and has, been said about Millais’ incursions into advertising, for instance ! Unlike some retrospectives, more inclined to enclose an artist’s work rather than open new perspectives, the one at the Tate reminds us of the ease with which Millais moved from one theme to the next, changing styles at will after 1860, using photography as well as the accepted models of English tradition, in a word, seizing whatever chance he could to respond to Victorian society’s ever-widening demands. The artist had started early on. The painting which brought him recognition in 1846 by the public at the Royal Academy, evoking the bloody massacre of the Incas by the Spanish Catholics, was in tune with the aesthetic choices of English Romanticism, somewhere between West and Wilkie. Willfully and resolutely ignoring the boundaries among the different genres, mixing grand rhetoric with picturesque details, Millais displayed a disconcerting mastery at the age of sixteen. The scene as well as the brushstrokes are energetic, the light is warm, “the effect” very “sure”, in the words of Géricault after his stay in London around 1820.

2. John Everett Millais (1829-1896)
Order of Release, Oil on canvas - 102,8 x 73,7 cm
Londres, Tate Britain
Photo : Tate Britain

The change in manner is all the more surprising. Was it a break with the past ? Along with Alison Smith, one can speak rather of a profound reorientation, in keeping with the visual culture of his childhood. Hence primitivism, one of the founding principles of the pre-Raphaelite group in 1848, is reflected in Millais’ documented interest in Flaxman and Moritz Retzsch’s Shakesperian illustrations, two musts in the artistic Europe of 1790-1830. In both cases, pure lines, archaisms and the dramatic tension of feelings take precedence over any other consideration. The alchemy of the pre-Raphaelites, on this point close to a painter such as Ingres, had to paradoxically combine this false naïveté and a form of extreme realism, carrying mimetic illusion as far as possible but with it the concern for psychological intensity. Let us not forget, though, that Millais’ precocious talent in pursuing sources beyond literary classics, by turning to genre subjects, prevented his painting from acquiring any artificial dryness. The exhibition, which in the first two galleries assembles the best work from 1848-1860, highlights how the painter early on adopts slightly more modern themes and, rather than opting for complicated narrative compositions, prefers to concentrate emotions in scenes limited to two or three figures. His aim is to touch the viewer’s heart directly by offering him the constantly changing display of couples struck by love or threatened by the world. Danger is never far, ready to strike or destroy the happiness of these rapturous young people. It is in fact recurrent in the iconography of the times. When looking at (ill. 1), inspired by Meyerbeer’s famous opera, one wonders to what extent Millais was familiar with French images which, before his own painting, passionately represented the Catholic Valentine and the Protestant Raoul de Nangis.

3. John Everett Millais (1829-1896)
A Somnambulist, c. 1871
Oil on canvas
Bolton, Museums and Art Gallery

Further along, notably with The Princes in the Tower (1878, Royal Holloway College, Egham) this dialogue (in both directions, according to Stephen Bann) between Paris and London reappears, for which Delaroche and Roqueplan acted as agents. But the painter of fashionable romances, far from the Middle Ages or the Elizabethan Renaissance, also knew how to approach the grimmer subjects of family discord or conjugal rifts. This awareness of modern life, treated without detour, forces Millais to abandon archaisms. Delacroix detected it and in 1855 distinguished a painting like The Order of Release, (1852-1853, Tate Gallery) from those he calls “our primitives, our Byzantines, obsessed by style, which, with eyes riveted on images from another era, don only their stiffness, without adding their own qualities”. Millais is more modern and more of a painter than certain followers of Ingres, Overbeck or Gérôme. The third section of the show confirms this in a certain way. Aestheticism, as defined by the commissioners, does not imply any thematic or stylistic restriction, on the contrary. Masterpieces abound, from the Portrait of Sophie Gray (1857, priv. coll.) to The Eve of St. Agnes (1862-1863, the Queen’s Collection), which would later exert an erotic and spectral charm on Huysman. No doubt an interesting area of study would be establishing the network of influence and emulation that arose at this time, through such collectors as Frederick Richard Leyland and among artists as different as Leighton, Rossetti and, last but not least, Whistler. Indeed, A Somnambulist (ill. 3) and the seascape framed in the window of The North-West Passage (1874, Tate Gallery) remind one of the American artist. Two paintings which, in passing, attest to the frequent appearance of young girls in Millais’ work with all their vulnerability and their perverse attraction. Many of the portraits of society figures are consistently troubling and emotionally powerful, characteristics which Millais knew how to instill in most of the paintings he touched.

4. John Everett Millais (1829-1896)
The Twins, 1876
Oil on canvas - 153,5 x 113,7 cm
Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum
Photo : The Fitzwilliam Museum

His pictorial language was not tainted only by the snobbery of his models or the haughtiness of their class. A whole room is devoted to the elements he borrowed from the masters to render his contemporaries “in a fancy way”. He picks here and there from Velazquez, Reynolds and Gainsborough. A very pertinent comparison might explore the attitude of the French “nouvelle peinture” : Manet, Degas or Renoir drawing unabashedly from their memories of Watteau, Fragonard or Greuze. Regardless of the fact that his subjects always pose, his portraits are never boring or superfluous. True, some important men, appear somber and static on purpose. But, repeatedly, and this despite the restrictions imposed by the genre, the painter attains perfection. His Twins, a magnificent and recent acquisition of the Fitzwilliam Museum (ill. 4), strikes the viewer as would a Chasseriau painted by Van Dyck. Was he as skilled in his late landscapes which close the exhibition ? Nothing would please us more than to affirm so and thus salute one last time the courage of the commissioners. But these paintings, we must confess, elicit only the unpleasant and sad impression of the vacuum they strive to ward off. Better to leave with other memories and ideas in mind.

Stéphane Guégan

Jason Rosenfeld et Alison Smith, Millais, Tate Publishing, 2007, £40 (relié), £24,99 (broché). ISBN : 978-1854377463 (relié) ; 978-1854376671 (broché)

Tate Britain Website

Stéphane Guégan, vendredi 16 novembre 2007


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