Hearts are Trumps. 1872. Sir John Everett Millais Bt PRA (1829-96). Oil on canvas. 1657 x 2197. Courtesy of the Tate, NO5770. Released by the gallery on the Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported) License. Commentary by Jacqueline Banerjee.

The gallery label of August 2004 suggests that this painting recalls the works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, expressing "in its flattering depiction of the fashionable sitters, ... a gentle and nostalgic vision of family life." According to Kenneth Garlick, the subjects in their sumptuous dresses are the three sisters, Elizabeth, Diana and Mary, daughters of the well-to-do merchant Walter Armstrong, and sisters of his son, the future Sir Walter Armstrong (1849-1918). The latter was already an art critic and would later become director of the National Gallery of Ireland. The sisters were still in their twenties at the time. The gallery label says that Mary, who is looking directly at us, holds most of the trumps: "Delicately, the card game hints at sisterly competition in husband-finding."

This is not the first time that the comparison with Reynolds has been made. The connection was established by Millais's son, in his compilation of his father's life and letters:

In a review of his works it was asserted that, successful as he was in certain branches of his Art, he was quite incapable of making such a picture of three beautiful women together in the dress of the period as Sir Joshua Reynolds had produced in his famous portrait of "The Ladies Waldegrave." He happened to see this review, and at once determined to show the world that such a task was by no means beyond his power, even when handicapped by the ungraceful dress and coiffure of the early seventies. The result was "Hearts are Trumps," in which the three beautiful daughters of Sir Walter Armstrong (now Mrs. Tennant-Dunlop, Mrs. Seeker, and Mrs. Ponsonby Blennerhasset) appear, engaged in a game of cards. That he was not altogether unsuccessful in his effort may be gathered from the following notice of this work in The Life and Work of Sir John Millais, by Mr. William Armstrong, published in 1885. The author says: "Few of Sir John Millais' pictures perhaps none made a greater sensation on their appearance at the Academy than this group of three young girls. The arrangement is, of course, not a little reminiscent of a famous Sir Joshua; but there is a bravura in the execution, and a union of respect for the minutest vagaries of fashion with breadth of hand and unity of result, which has never been excelled since the days of Don Diego Velasquez. And here I may pause for a moment to contrast the modern painter's way of going to work with that of his forerunners of a few generations ago. In the picture last mentioned there are many accessories a tall Chinese screen, a bank of red, white, and yellow azaleas, a card table, an Oriental gueridon with an empty tea-cup and all these, as well as the wide-spreading draperies of the three girls, were painted entirely by the hand of the master, which, moreover, had previously designed the grey dresses with their pink ribbons and yellow lace. In all this the distance is wide enough between the work of Millais and the "Waldegraves" of Reynolds, in which, as Walpole tells us, the journeyman had finished the table, etc., with the minuteness of a Dutch flower-painter. During the lifetime of Lady Waldegrave a small copy of Millais' picture used to hang at Strawberry Hill, near the group of Walpole's nieces. It served, at least, to show how slight was the fancied debt from the modern to the less than modern master." [39-40]

The masses of flowers and the great sea of fabric, both rendered in fine detail; the equally detailed and often exotic background; the subtleties of the colour and the meaningful expressions on the young women's faces — which, however, still require interpreting — all make this painting at once dazzling and intriguing. In fact it is only superficially the "gentle and nostalgic vision of family life" of the gallery label's description, just as it only bears a superficial resemblance to the work of the "famous Sir Joshua."

References

Garlick, Kenneth. "Armstrong, Sir Walter (18491918). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 7 October 2017.

"Hearts are Trumps." Display Caption. Tate. Web. 7 October 2017.

Millais, John Guille. The Life and Letters of John Everett Millais, President of the Royal Academy. 2 vols. Vol. 2. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1899. Internet Archive. Web. 7 October 2017.


Created 8 October 2017