Sir John Everett Millais. The Vale of Rest. 1858; partially repainted 1862. Photogravure of original, which is oil on canvas, 40 1/2 x 68 inches. Tate Gallery, London. Source: The Life and Letters of Millais, facing, I, 332.
In the detailed Tate catalogue entry, which contains materials from various letters about the painting, Malcolm Warner points out that Millais considered the The Vale of Rest his favorite picture. In his life of his father, John G. Millais relates several interesting stories about the painting, including that the artist had the kind of troubles with one of the figures that later plagued his friend Hunt while at work on The Shadow of Death.
An unsatisfactory pose of a figure has often driven a conscientious artist to the verge of insanity. And this was the case with the figure of the woman digging in "The Vale of Rest." I have heard my mother say she never had such a time in her life as when my father was painting that woman.
Everything was perfect in the picture except this wretched female, and nothing would induce her to go right. Every day for seven weeks he painted and repainted her, with the result that the figure was worse than ever, and he was almost distracted. My mother then proceeded to hatch a plot with my grandmother to steal the picture! This was skilfully effected one day when he had left his work for a few hours. The two arch-plotters took it between them and carried it into a wine-cellar, where it was securely locked up.
When the painter returned to work and found his treasure gone he was, of course, in a dreadful state of mind, and on discovering the trick that had been played him, he tried every means to make them give it up to him, but this they steadfastly refused to do. Here then was a predicament ! For some days he would settle to nothing, and the model, who received good payment, would insist on coming every day and sitting in the kitchen, saying that she was engaged till the picture was finished. The situation at last became comic — Millais furious, the conspirators placid, smiling, but firm, and the model immovable.
At last he was persuaded to set to work on some water-colour replicas of "The Huguenot" and "The Heretic," for Mr. Gambart, and as he became interested in them he gradually calmed down. When the picture was eventually returned to him, he saw at a glance where his mistake lay, and in a few hours put everything right.
My uncle William tells an amusing story about this, which is worth repeating in his own words:--" Millais, as everyone knows, had the greatest power in the realistic rendering of all objects that came under his brush, and the veriest tyro could not fail to recognise at a glance the thing that he painted. I remember, however, a case in which the power was not recognised; in fact; the objects painted failed to convey the faintest notion of what they were intended to represent. An old Scotchman, after looking at 'The Vale of Rest' for some time, said to my brother in my hearing, 'Well, the picture's all well enough, but there's something I don't like.' My brother, who was always ready to listen to any criticism, said, 'What don't you like? Speak out, don't be afraid!'
"'Well,' said he, 'I don't like the idea of water in a grave.' 'Water in a grave?' said my brother. 'Well, there it is plain enough ' (pointing to a mattock), 'pouring into the grave.' He had actually mistaken the sheen of a steel mattock for a jet of water, and the handle for a bridge across the grave. This was too good a story not to be passed round, and it was told on the occasion of the picture being privately exhibited at the Langham Chambers, just before being sent to the Royal Academy. There was a good assemblage of people, and amongst them, though unrecog- nised, the old gentleman himself. The story was told with great gusto by John Leech (in my presence), and a roar of laughter followed, coupled with the words, 'What an old ass he must have been! 'Whereupon the old gentleman sprang up from the sofa and said, 'I'm the verra man myself.' It was honest of him, to say the least."
Mr. M. H. Spielmann, who has carefully studied Millais' works, says of it: — "This picture I have always felt to be one of the greatest and most impressive ever painted in England; one in which the sentiment is not mawkish, nor the tragedy melodramatic — a picture to look at with hushed voice and bowed head; in which the execution is not overwhelmed by the story; in which the story is emphasised by the composition; and in which the composition is worthy of the handling."
"This is the year Mr. Millais gave forth those terrible nuns in the graveyard": thus Mr. Punch characterised the year 1859. Even Ruskin, denouncing the methods, and admitting (unjustly) the ugliness and "frightfulness" of the figures, was constrained to allow it nobility of horror, if horror it was, and the greatness of the touching sentiment. His charge of crudeness in the painting no longer holds good. Time — that grand Old Master to which Millais did homage in act and word—has done the work the artist intended him to do; and I venture to think that in the New Gallery of British Art there will be no more impressive, no more powerful work than that which shocked the Art world of 1859.
In 1862 Millais saw how he could improve the face of the nun that is seated at the head of the grave, so he had the picture in his studio for a week, and repainted the head from a Miss Lane. [The Life and Letters of Millais, I, 331-333].
Millais, John Guile. The Life and Letters of John Everett Millais, President of the Royal Academy. 2 vols. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1899.
The Pre-Raphaelites. London: Tate Gallery/Allen Lane, 1984.
Last modified 1 October 2004