Sir John Everett Millais, a member of the Pre-Raphelite Brotherhood, was known for his precision, attention to detail, and stellar ability as a colorist. Born in St. Helier, Jersey in 1829, he was to become one of the youngest inductees into the Royal Academy, and would eventually become its president. Studying in the Royal Academy schools, he became acquainted with William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose ideas about painting he would come to share. These artists aimed to achieve the simplicity of Medieval art while painting in the manner of stark realism and vivid color. Millais's paintings exemplify elements of this simplicity, and his aesthetic demonstrates a sophisticated interest in paint and its possibilities.
His early work, namely Christ in the House of his Parents, elicited negative responses from numerous critics, including a derisive review in Household Words written by Charles Dickens, who warned readers to prepare themselves for "the lowest depths of what is mean, repulsive, and revolting" (Charles Dickens in Walker Art Gallery, 29). A very curious picture, it features young Jesus having cut himself in a carpentry accident. Tended to by his parents, he slouches weakly in the center of the composition. While Bible themes were popular among the Pre-Raphaelites, such an unusual narrative took viewers by surprise. Millais's technical prowess, however, ensured his security in the public's eye and heart.
Millais progressed toward more intriguing subject matter with his 1851 painting Mariana, a paradigm of aestheticism and beauty. Rosetti recorded in the PRB Journal that Millais had made the design for this painting before he left London for Oxford at the beginning of June 1850 (Walker Art Gallery, 31). Mariana features a young woman in a blue dress stretching her aching back by her opened window, having strained herself working on a needlepoint that sits on the table in front of her. Based on Tennyson's poem by the same title, this painting demonstrates the PRB's affinity for literature-based themes. Tennyson writes:
She only said, "My life is dreary —
He cometh not" she said;
She said, "I am aweary, aweary —
I would that I were dead." (Walker Art Gallery, 31)
Tennyson based his character on Shakespeare's Mariana from Measure for Measure, awaiting the return of her fiancé Angelo who has abandoned her after her dowry was lost at sea. Tennyson's Mariana "is forever trapped in stasis" (Walker Art Gallery, 31). Millais communicates this quality through his exhaustive attention to detail. By laboring over the visual particularities of every object, the artist fixes each in space. In a similar way, Mariana, rendered descriptively to the last hair on her head, appears fixed her position of back-wrenching angst. Through portraying this quality of permanence, Millais fleshes out Mariana's feeling of entrapment, and in her time of waiting, the ability of a moment to extend for what feels like hours.
The artist toys with ideas of time and temporality by using themes of nature and decoration. Leaves fill the room in which Mariana stands, having blown in from the open window in front of her. Their presence in the interior realm blurs the boundaries between outside and inside, upsetting the Victorian distinction between the two. This detail can be read two ways. One could suggest that this opened window signifies that Mariana is not completely trapped in her female domain, but is given an escape to an exterior beyond the room she inhabits. On the other hand, perhaps these creeping leaves serve no other purpose than to remind the awaiting Mariana of the outside world where her lover resides, enhancing the agony of her situation.
Millais uses the interior decoration as a means of meditating on the theme of time. He juxtaposes the Medieval stained glass windows, which came from Merton College Chapel, Oxford (Walker Art Gallery, 31), with the otherwise predominantly Victorian decoration of the room. The walls possess the floral motifs and hyper-detailed quality typical of the later Arts and Crafts Movement, and the room itself possesses the feeling of being stuffed to gills with art objects and decoration, a characteristic of nineteenth-century interiors. This juxtaposition symbolizes the plight of the Pre-Raphaelite painter, straddling his nineteenth-century reality with his preoccupation with the simplicity of the Medieval. It also suggests the timelessness of Mariana's plight, as the Medieval windows represent the Annunciation. The theme of the female in waiting, therefore, extends from the days of Mary to those of Mariana.
Millais uses bright, contrasting colors to individuate themes and objects in the painting. Mariana, radiant in blue, contrasts the complementary orange of the stool on which she sat. Similarly, the greenish tone of the natural outdoors repels its complementary reddish tint of the interior of the room. Mariana's needlepoint that sits on the table before her appears in red, contrasting the green of the leaf right next to it. With these subtle gimmicks of color, Millais delineates the various themes of his painting: outside versus inside, and rest versus toil.
Millais's colors may also possess some religious symbolism. His protagonist's red hair may allude to auburn tresses of Mary Magdelene, the blue of her dress could symbolize the holy bloodline. Religious symbolism permeates the rest of the painting, as well, including but not limited to the stained glass windows already discussed, the offering table in the room's corner, and the seal in the right-hand window reading In coelo quies or In Heaven there is rest (Kate Moller '05). This inscription suggests Mariana's suicidal state. Though she tries to find rest from her earthly work by stretching her back and contemplating the world beyond the window in front of her, perhaps Heaven provides the only true release.
Mariana was not initially well-received. Ruskin wrote in his Times letter of May 13, 1851 that he was content to see that Millais's "lady in blue is heartily tired of painted windows and idolatrous toilet table" (Ruskin, in Walker Art Gallery, 31). Despite criticism, however, this picture influenced subsequent images of Victorian women. William Holman Hunt's The Awakening Conscience is one such example. While the obvious comparison can be made of the theme of exterior versus interior and the woman's domain, these pieces resemble one another in the artists' use of space: the main figures appear in the center of the composition, and the artists' style of painting: ornate, colorful, and hyper-realistic. These two pictures skim the surface in terms of Hunt's and Millais's influence on one another, exemplifying their similar interest in the Victorian woman and her plight.
Related Discussions of Millais by the Same Author
- Doomed and Decorated: Millais's Lovers and their Surroundings in The Black Brunswickers
- Knowledge and Family in Millais's The Ruling Passion
- Nudes and Knights: Millais's The Knight Errant
- Order in the Family in The Order of Release
Walker Art Gallery. Millais: An Exhibition Organized by the Walker Art Gallery Liverpool and the Royal Academy of Arts London, Jan-Apr 1967. London: William Clowes and Sons, Ltd. Printers to the Royal Academy, 1967.
Kate Moller '05, "Literary References and Mood in Mariana."
Last modified 15 May 2007