Millais's later oeuvre demonstrates a tendency toward portraiture and scenes of every day life, making his 1870 picture The Knight Errant an aberration from the more banal, and more clothed paintings of his later career. The painting features a nude woman, having been stripped and bound to a tree, rescued by a fully-armored knight who cuts her ropes with his bloody sword. With this picture, Millais makes reference to classical subject matter, and defines his stance on the Victorian problem of the nude.
The Knight Errant. Oil on canvas, 184.1 x135.3 cm (72 ½ x 53 ¼ inches). Courtesy of Tate Britain. Click on image to enlarge it.
The Knight Errant lacks any famous narrative, but certainly draws upon mythology, most notably, the story of Andromeda, which both Charles Kingsley (text; 1858) and William Morris (text; 1868) had retold in verse just before Millais created his painting. Offered to Poseidon as homage for her parents' wrong-doing, Andromeda was chained to a sea-side rock. The heroic Perseus, in passing the princess, fell enamored of her beauty, initially mistaking her for a statue, and rescued her from the sea monster Poseidon sent.
Though Millais's nude appears similarly bound and helpless, her body lacks the statuesque appeal of many stylized, perfected female bodies in artistic rendering. Millais painted this picture during a time of debate concerning the nude's nature as a threat to morality, where the opposition argued that a beautifully rendered figure "transcended sexual urges" (Barlow, 153). Millais's picture is suggestive, but not overtly sexual. Signs of sexuality appear in the woman's flowing hair, the proximity of the soldier's sword, and the phallic nature of the tree emerging from between the two figures. The red of the cloth peeking out from the knight's armor suggests his humanity, blood, and sexuality, as a color associated with livelihood and of course, desire. The moon on the left side of the painting (the female's allotted sphere in this picture) connotes the female reproductive cycle, its sliver of a form suggesting her waning spirits.
More than a response to debates of the day, Millais's representation of a nude could have also been as an exercise of artistic prowess, as it was generally accepted that the ability to effectively render the nude proved one's ability as a respectable artist.
The Knight Errant was Millais's only painting of the nude, (Spielmann, 152), and demonstrated his artistic facility. The artist calls attention to his featured nude by rendering her differently from the rest of the painting, not only in color, but also in brushstroke. Her contours resemble the soft lines of a Rembrandt figure, the understated shadows and blurred edges giving her a illuminated glow against the otherwise darkened setting. Had she been sculpted, she would embody elements of the New Sculpture, a departure from the mannerist body to a more naturalistic representation. This naturalism is especially apparent in her torso region, where bits of flesh fold according to the pull of the rope, and cellulite appears on her buttocks and upper thighs. Her body, as visibly imperfect, could be read as less sexual because of its naturalistic nature. On the other hand, it could be considered even more sexual because of its life-like quality. I maintain Millais records her body as part of a larger narrative, not as a pornographic picture of bodily perfection.
Millais juxtaposes the woman's soft skin with the hard armor of her knight rescuer, whose costume appears rendered down to every last plate. He calls upon the stereotypical definitions of male and female with this picture: the woman with her soft skin and vulnerable stance, the male with a guarded exterior coming to her rescue. While the artist could have been making a social statement with this image, it is more likely he aims to refer to the simplicity and romance of Medieval subject matter.
Speilmann, M.H. Millais and His Works. London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1898.
Last modified 15 May 2007
Image added 18 September 2021