Millais’ Autumn Leaves

27 Sep

As the Autumn is approaching with its red falling leaves, cold misty mornings, endless rain and vivid dusk painted in golden and purple shades, this painting is becoming more and more dear to me.

1856. automn leaves - John Everett Millais

Painting Autumn leaves was painted in 1856. by John Everett Millais, a famous Pre-Raphaelite artist who also painted even more famous Ophelia of who I’ve written earlier. In painting Autumn leaves Millais wanted to depict a picture ‘full of beauty and without a subject’ according to his wife Effie. Art critic John Ruskin, responsible for promoting the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood in their beginning when everybody rejected their work, described the painting as ‘the first instance of a perfectly painted twilight’.

The painting depicts four girls collecting fallen leaves in the twilight. They are making a bonfire, but only the smoke is visible to the audience. The overall atmosphere of the painting is melancholic; Autumn as a subject is the saddest months when the nature is reaching the end, slowly dying, and the product of its death are red and yellow falling leaves, misty mornings and vivid twilights; Nature saying goodbye in a sorrowful way. The girl in the middle who is holding a bunch of leaves in her hand and gazing sentimentally and thoughtfully at the viewer while her long auburn hair dances on the dusky Autumn wind is Sophy Gray, Millais’ sister in law. The girl on the far left is Alice Gray, Sophy’s younger sister. A year and a half before this painting was exhibited in 1856, Millais married Effie Gray, former wife of the already mentioned art critic John Ruskin, and Sophy and Alice are Effie’s younger sisters. The little girl on the right is holding an apple, which may allude to the loss of childhood and could be a reference to the original sin.

Sophy is a beautiful girl, only thirteen at the time, yet verging into womanhood, her beauty blossoming like a spring rose. She modeled for Millais three times, but this was the first painting which she posed for him. Even at thirteen she looks stunning, leaving the other girls in the shadow of her beauty and charm. However, the painting is typically interpreted as a representation of transience of beauty and youth, the Autumn being a symbol of transience and death. Inspiration for the painting was Lord Tennyson’s poem Tears, Idle Tears, particularly one verse:

Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean.
Tears from 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.

I suppose this painting is Millais’ Ode to Autumn, which was inspirational to many artists before him, particularly in Romanticism. I can’t resist mentioning Keats’ same named poem or Emily Bronte’s poem Fall, leaves, fall. Autumn is a season of vivid colours, smells, cold mornings, rainy afternoons and melancholy.

Ode to Autumn

”Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’erbrimmed their clammy cells.”

Fall, leaves, fall

”Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night’s decay
Ushers in a drearier day.”
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