The Ornithologist, or The Ruling Passion, by Sir John Everett Millais Bt PRA (1829-96). 1885. Oil on canvas. H 160.7 x W 215.9 cm. Collection: Glasgow Museums (Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum). Accession number: 1207, purchased in 1907. Image via Art UK, where it is available on the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives licence. [Click to enlarge the image.]
Millais visited the ornithologist and illustrator John Gould (1804-1881), in his declining years, when he was an invalid. Here, he presents him showing some of his specimens to children, among whom the two youngest were Millais's own grandsons, William and George. In his biography of his father, his son John gives the full background to this painting, explaining that he finds its origin "somewhat singular" (169). He introduces Gould and says he was greatly surprised when the now ailing and irascible ornithologist asked his father to visit:
It was in the middle of winter when my father and I called upon him, by appointment; and after waiting impatiently half an hour in the cold hall, we were just on the point of leaving when the door opened, and we were ushered into his sitting-room. The old man was evidently got up for the occasion. 
There follows a sad picture of Gould pretending to be still working on an illustration of a humming-bird, and adding to it in quite unrealistic way. "However," continues the younger John Millais, "artist or not, he was a devoted and well-informed naturalist, who by sheer hard work had won his way to the front in a profession in which none but an enthusiast could ever hope to succeed." 
The invalid called his two daughters to help him show off his latest acquisitions,
My father was delighted with all he saw, and on our way home he said to me, "That's a fine subject; a very fine subject. I shall paint it when I have time." And he did. The Ruling Passion was commenced in the early spring of 1885, and finished in time for the Academy Exhibition that year — a really wonderful performance, considering the labour expended on the numerous figures and accessories.
Perhaps no work of Millais has improved so much in the same space of time. When it was first hung in the dining-room at Palace Gate there was a coldness and want of tone about it that was most noticeable ; yet every year it seems to have sunk and sweetened, till to day it is almost like a different picture. The figure of the woman leaning over the couch with her arm round the neck of one of the boys is, I venture to think, as fine as anything he ever painted; but if he could have persuaded himself to sacrifice the two little children (as he did in The North-West Passage, after weeks of labour on them) the picture would no doubt have been vastly improved. With their happy, bright little faces they somewhat clog the composition and weaken, if not destroy, the sentiment, as Millais himself eventually saw. However, "time and varnish," as he said, have been very good even to them, and a hundred years hence they may possibly be looked upon as indispensable accessories to the composition. As originally painted, the crude colour of the old man's pillow and blanket militated against the general tone of the picture; so when it came back from the Academy Millais altered this, to the great improvement of the work. [170-72]
Millais's son continues by reporting how much John Ruskin had liked the work: he had told art-critic Marion Speilman that he "thought it the finest of its kind painted in modern times, whether for sentiment or for management of colour." He also gives some details about the sitters:
Millais' old friend, T. O. Barlow, the engraver — then, alas, nearing the end of his days — sat for the principal figure; the two little boys were "Bubbles" and his brother George, the artist's grandsons; the graceful woman was a model who also stood for the principal figure in The Nest; and the boy in the sailor-suit was Ivor Byng, son of the Hon. and Rev. Francis Byng, formerly chaplain to the House of Commons. The girl in the foreground, to the left, was a professional model, who also sat for one of the girls in the Idyll. The big Sheraton bookcase at the back of the picture was formerly used in my mother's room, and all the birds were taken from my collection. 
Close-up taken from the black-and-white reproduction of the painting in The Life and Letters, facing p. 170.
Despite Ruskin's enthusiasm, the picture was not immediately successful. The person who had initially commissioned it was unhappy at being reminded of the sick-room in which a member of his own family had died. As the artist himself explained in a letter to Dickens's married daughter, Kate Perugini, "Both Sir A. B— and Mr. C— decline to have The Ruling Passion. I don't think, therefore, I will trouble the critics and public any more with what is called 'an important picture'" (174). He would, it seems, return to "portraits, landscapes, and child pictures" (172), the kind of work which might seem less prestigious, but for which there was more demand.
Original page and black-and-white image acquisition George P. Landow; colour image acquisition and excerpts from The Life and Letters added by Jacqueline Banerjee. Both images can be reproducedwithout prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you credit the source. It would be good to link your document to this URL or refer to the Victorian Web in a print document.
Millais, John Guile. The Life and Letters of John Everett Millais, President of the Royal Academy, II. 2 vols. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1899. Web. 3 April 2019.
The Ornithologist. Art UK. 3 April 2019.
The Pre-Raphaelites. London: Tate Gallery/Allen Lane, 1984.
Last modified 3 April 2019