Sir John Everett Millais Bt PRA (1829-96)
41 x 29 inches inches
City Art Galleries, Manchester
Detail of leaves
[See commentary below]
Malcom Warner's excellent entry for this painting in the 1984 Tate catalogue points out that "with 'Autumn Leaves' Millais set out to paint 'a picture full of beauty and without subject', a work in which the very specific story-telling that plays such a part in his paintings of the early-1850s is replaced by a concern for creating a mood and suggesting more universal ideas. The season, the deadleaves, the smokeand the sunset are allimages of transcience, reminders that all things must pass. It is a setting redolent of decay and death that makes us conscious that the girls in the foreground, for all their youth and beauty, must inevitably go through the same processes. The apple held by the little on the right is an emblem of autumn but may also intended to recall the Original Sin that made mankind subject to mortality. . . .'Autumn Levaes' . . . . has a solemn, almost sacremental feeling that one might call religious. . . . The ideas of autumn as inducing what Millais calls "the deepest idea of religious reflection" comes not [as his PRB brother F. G. Stephens suggested] from the Psalms or any other part of the Bible but from contemporary English poetry" (139). According to Warner, the painter was reading Tennyson's The Princess while working on the painting, "and his thoughts echo the poet's as expressed in the well-known song in Part IV:
Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean.
Tearsfrom the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy Autumn-fields,
And thinking on the days that are no more.
"Millais," Warner continues, "visited Tennyson in November 1854" and his experience "of helping sweepup and burn dead leaves" at the poet's home inspired the painting.
The elegaic sadness that permeates Tennyson's poem and Millais's painting also appears in many major Victorian poems, including D. G. Rossetti's House of Life, A.C. Swinburne's "By the North Sea," and G.M. Hopkins "Spring and Fall." Late in the century it resurfaces as the world-weariness of the Aesthetes and Decadents [GPL].
The Pre-Raphaelites. London: Tate Gallery/Allen Lane, 1984. No. 74. Pp. 139-41.
Last modified 26 September 2004