My biggest inspiration for October was 1970s Berlin; David Bowie, Christiane F. and all that decadency and avant- garde. Cold weather somehow always reminds me of Berlin and more deeper, depressive subjects. At the same time, I’ve been really obsessed with Mirbeau’s novel Torture Garden. Not to mention Yukio Mishima’s ‘Thirst for love‘ which I’ve read this month too. My other inspirations were Anna Karina, especially movies ‘Une femme est une femme‘ and ‘Pierrot le feu‘, both by Godard, Poe with his themes of love and death, movie The Crow (1994), Pre-Raphaelite ladies and Fuselli’s painting ‘The Nightmare‘.
“The greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine.” – David Bowie
Berlin was a border between west and east; a world of Capitalism and a world of Communism; clashed between two European ideologies for four decades, Berlin had to turn in on itself, reinventing and reinterpreting the rich, yet louche past of Weimar Berlin, blending it with the grey landscape of concrete alienation. Isolated by the Cold War and divided by the wall, Berlin’s culture flourished in the clash of Political and Cultural values. Reveling in the cynical present of spies, dehumanising grey concrete buildings, government subsidies and anarchy, the city had a world-weary self regard. It was this bleak, heavy with despair atmosphere of unified collapse that attracted young bohemians to the city, promoting it as a cult destination because it was an alternative to both Capitalistic west and Communist East. Foreigners saw their own alienation mirrored in the city’s outsider status.
Berlin’s youth felt this alienation more than the other citizens. They absorbed all the boredom, alienation and negligence they felt, not only from their parents but from their surroundings of cruel concrete buildings in Kreuzberg, Schöneberg or the infamous ones in Gropiusstadt, from schools and authorities. Nobody cared for them. Or at least that’s how they felt. In schools, teachers were just doing their jobs and nothing else, nobody cared how were they, what are they thinking. They felt that Political clash more than their hard-working parents in the new west Berlin consumerist society that Capitalism was creating. Coming home with the sunset, their parents had little time for their sensitive teens, affected by the atmosphere in their wall divided city more than one could imagine, and already, at a tender age such as thirteen, drown into the eternal hell of heroin which seemed the only answer.
Christiane F. is the best example of what living in the alienated environment of Gropiusstadt, among thousands of other people and not a single friend, can do to a child, especially when they find acceptance and attention they seek from their parents in places such as ‘Sound‘; an infamous discotheque on Kudamm where, among cherry juices, dance floors and David Bowie’s songs, heroin could also be found. Hippies in the 1960s took drugs because they were ‘doors to perception’; youth in the 1970s Berlin took them because they wanted to numb their senses, not sharpen them; by taking heroin they seemingly eliminated all the problems. The irresistible feeling of emptiness was something they could never get rid of. Where ever you went in Berlin; whether it’s a shabby flat in Gropiusstadt, a dance floor in Sound, Bahnhof Zoo with its smell of urine and male prostitutes leaned against the wall waiting for the customers; the endless feeling of alienation and void was always there.
Living in the clash of political ideologies and cultural experimentation, in a city divided by the wall, and numbed by its concrete buildings, youth oriented towards something that was above the shitty triviality they couldn’t handle; music. To Christiane F. and her friend, David Bowie was an idol, a hero. Christiane had all of his records and listened to him in the dreary and rainy Berlin days, gazing on the cloudy sky from the tenth floor. Bowie wasn’t above that at all, deep in a cocaine hell himself, he sought to find inspiration and new creative sources from that same spring of alienation that suffocated Christiane and her friends so badly. Seeing the life which awaits them; shitty flat and a crappy ten hour job, work around the clock in the shadow of the wall (Berliners thought the Cold war would never end), Berlin youth protested by immersing into a world of music and drugs. Taking heroin was a protest against the petty-bourgeois lives their parents led; there had to be something more. Christiane F, the most famous person from Berlin at the time, which only adds to its Zeitgeist, later came to symbolise the atmosphere of desolation and neglect that permeated Berlin at the time.
While the youth suffered and finally succumbed to the heavy and grey atmosphere of their suffocating city, many bohemians, artist and musicians found their inspiration in the very same atmosphere, most notably David Bowie. However, Lou Reed was inspired by this enigmatic city as early as in 1973. and the product was a concept album Berlin which dealt with themes of love and junkies. The album, although harshly criticised at the time it was released, is a grandiose and decadent masterpiece, and though it’s depressive, it is oddly beautiful in its darkness.
David Bowie and Iggy Pop came to Berlin in November 1976. drown to the city’s world-weary self-regard and the inspiration that emerged from the divided areas, the wall and the powerful political clash which only emphasised the culture. Bowie’s ‘Berlin era‘ is a defining postwar musical moment. In Berlin Bowie found what he was looking for in vain all those years; freedom, anonymity and new creative inspiration. He could be seen cycling around the city, especially in Schöneberg where he shared a flat with Iggy Pop. He enjoyed the comfort of privacy; people either haven’t noticed him at all, or if they did, they paid no attention what so ever. Still, Berliners were flattered that he chose to live among them in that wasteland. While other bohemian artists chose the rather more funky Kreuzberg, Bowie settled in Schöneberg on Hauptstrasse 155, an address he still hasn’t forgotten, recording his music in a studio ‘Hansa by the Wall‘, as he called it.
David Bowie emerged himself into Berlin life, loving the quirkiness of it. There were all sorts of crazy people there in those times; half crazy-half genious artists, ridiculously dressed girls and boys in nightclubs; Bowie was amazed and intrigued by these diversities and cultural flourishment in times of great political instability. The product of his fascination with the city were three albums; Low, Heroes and Lodger – today known as Bowie’s ‘Berlin Trilogy‘. Iggy Pop’s most notable achievement from the time was album Idiot (1977) which gained a cult status. Prelude to Bowie’s ‘Berlin Trilogy’, the album Station to Station (1976) foreshadows the following Euro-centric, electric music phase and marks the transition between Ziggy Stardust era and Berlin era.
Surrounded by Expressionistic art and other artists and musicians, Bowie was just another weirdo in the town and everybody left him alone and that’s what he liked. Freedom and liberal atmosphere suited Bowie and provided him with peace for new blossoming ideas. This free and sometimes amateurish spirit of West Berlin is well described by Wolfgang Muller – ‘There was this open, liberal atmosphere… People really didn’t care. A friend of mine once laid down on Oranienstraße, on the street, and cars just slowly drove around her.‘ In the middle of the Cold war, this ‘outsider status‘ city had a magnetic charisma and attracted artists with its bleak, liberal, magically alienated, decadent and experimental atmosphere; the same atmosphere that pervades David Bowie’s albums from his Berlin trilogy.
At the time Bowie arrived in Berlin, the smell of cultural blossoming was permeating the air. Still neglected and desolated, Berlin was a place ideal for artistic experimentation and soon many bohemians, visionaries or simply young people protesting against the Capitalist culture that invaded the rest of Germany, found shelter in cheap flats on the west side of the wall. In the 1970s the party never stopped in this ‘cabaret wasteland‘; discotheques, cafes, gigs, numerous art happenings, music scene; all of these things created the atmosphere of endless possibilities and experimentation. ‘You could meet anybody and everybody. That was the change.‘, Muller also said. A change was in the air, and David Bowie acted as a catalyst.
Berlin provided unique opportunities for wanna-be artists and bohemians. It was a place of refuge for the people who disagreed with the pressure to make everything economically viable; a sentiment that was shared all across west Germany. The wall had its advantages, as 0n the western side the alternative way of life was developing. Although Berlin still continues to attract people who want to experiment, that liberal, free, untouched by capitalism or consumerism spirit is long gone. Art has succumbed to money, experimentation and alternative gave place to financial security and complete westernisation. Still, ‘Ars longa, vita brevis.‘; perhaps Bowie’s ‘Berlin trilogy‘, Iggy Pop’s Idiot and the infamous Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo are the last testaments to the old experimental, liberal and Avant-garde Berlin.
West Berlin allowed Bowie and Iggy Pop to distance themselves from British and American music expectations, to leap into the unknown areas of music, and using experimental techniques, they drew inspiration from city’s world-weary self regard, creating thin, alienated sound that would become almost symbolic for Berlin’s Zeitgeist of the 1970s. Bowie’s song Heroes has since became almost iconic, in adition to being featured in the movie Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, the song crystallized the life in Berlin, telling a tale of two lovers walking by the wall. Also, one song on the same album has a name Neuköln which is the name of another Berlin district, though it’s actually written with two ‘L’.
Out of all three Bowie’s Berlin era albums, ‘Heroes‘ is the one that reflects the Zeitgeist of the Cold war and the divided city the most; it stands as a deeply passionate and positive artistic testament to Bowie’s time spent in Berlin, with its dark and atmospheric instrumentals such as Sense of Doubt and V-2 Schneider. Relative optimism of the album distinguishes it from the previous, melancholic and slightly disturbing ‘Low’.
David Bowie definitely had an impact on Berlin’s culture and music scene in the late 1970s. In those times Berlin was nowhere; a divided city which Bowie added glamour to, and absorbing its decadent spirit he also directed it into a cultural extravaganza. However, at the time when Bowie’s ‘Berlin era‘ was at its peak, a new musical style was developing, and soon, by the time Nick Cave arrived in West Berlin in 1983, the cultural landscape was totally different. Punk, Post-Punk and Industrial bands sprouted from the fertile ground Bowie had set for them, influencing and encouraging a whole new generation whose music and cultural tastes were shaped by late 70s decadency in the shadow of the wall. Even in the early 1980s Bowie’s influence resonated through the city. Bands such as Müller’s Die Tödliche Doris, Malaria! and most importantly Blixa Bargeld’s Einstürzende Neubauten created a musical language and style that Berlin could call its own.
“One of the most unexplored regions of art are dreams.” – Fuseli
Henry Fuseli painted ‘The Nightmare‘, which remained his best-known work, in 1781. and the most interesting thing about this painting is that it simultaneously portrays a sleeping woman and the content of her nightmare. At the time it was painted, the overt sexuality repelled the critics. Later, however, the subject of the painting was interpreted as anticipating Freudian ideas about the unconscious.
The Nightmare was first exhibited in 1782. at the Royal Academy of London, and it instantly became famous. Painted in chiaroscuro, the painting depicts a woman stretched on the bed and sleeping. The sleeper seems lifeless, lying in a pose that was believed to encourage nightmares, and her face expression indicates the nightmare she has. The interior is contemporary and fashionable, and so are the sleeper’s clothes. While the foreground is light, elegant and rational, the background is darker, painted in deep reds, yellows and ochers, and it’s where the nightmare resides; both the mare (horse) and the incubus peek on the sleeper from the background. That conflict between the light, clean, formal and rational; the foreground, and the mysterious, imaginary, dreamy and wild background marks the contrast between Classicism and Romanticism.
The subject itself is ‘Romantic‘; sleep and dreams, mysteries and the unknown; something very appealing to artists in Romanticism. The painting was likely inspired by Fuseli’s waking dreams, which were experienced by his contemporaries as well. Fuseli considered those dreams to be related to folkloric beliefs like the Germanic tales about demons and witches that possessed people who slept alone. The early meaning of ‘nightmare’ included the sleepers experience of weight on the chest, along with sleep paralysis and a feeling of dread. This painting includes many of the ideas associated with these folkloric tales and beliefs; a demon is crouched on woman’s chest and a horse is peeking through the curtain.
The image of a woman on the painting, and her very expressive pose, especially for those times, was inspired by Fuseli’s unrequited love, a young woman named Anna Landholdt whom he wanted to marry but whose father strongly objected. Also, Fuseli was known to have had numerous erotic prints in his possession. However, in the twentieth century, the painting was interpreted as anticipating Freudian ideas about the unconscious. Sigmund Freud believed that the purpose of dreams is to look in to unconscious urges and seek to fulfill them subconsciously.
The Nightmare inspired many other artists ever since it was painted, most notably Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe; both of them Romantic authors. A scene in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus where the Creature murders Victor’s wife Elizabeth, and she’s seen lying death on the bed – “She was there, lifeless and inanimate, thrown across the bed, her head hanging down, and her pale and distorted features half covered by hair.” Also, the story in the novel has some similarities with Fuseli’s life; just as Fuseli’s incubus is infused with the artist’s emotions in seeing his beloved Anna marrying another man, Shelley’s Creature promises to revenge on Victor on the night of his wedding.
Edgar Allan Poe mentions Fuseli’s work, or style of painting, in his story The Fall of the House of Usher (1839.) Story’s narrator compares one of the paintings in the Usher House with Fuseli’s painting, and reveals that “irrepressible tremor gradually pervaded my frame; and, at length, there sat upon my heart an incubus of utterly causeless alarm.” Both Fuseli and Poe shared an unusual interest in the subconscious; the land of dreams, death and imagination.
Exploration of the inner self lead the Romantics to discover a prodigious world of mysticism, imagination and dreams.
“To romanticize the world is to make us aware of the magic, mystery and wonder of the world; it is to educate the senses to see the ordinary as extraordinary, the familiar as strange, the mundane as sacred, the finite as infinite.”(Novalis)
Romantic era is very appealing to me; all those sad young people that died way too soon, unrequited loves, themes and love towards nature, focus on individuality and imagination,beautiful portraits where ladies’ faces are framed with curls and delicate roses, escapism, melancholy as a state of mind, feeling of alienation.
Every movement in art, music and literature comes as an answer to the previous one and acts as its opposite. Romanticism came as an answer to Classicism and deemed its ‘cult of reason’, coldness, formality and restraint characteristic for the art and literature of the time. In Romanticism an artist is a genious, a gifted person who stands lonely and misunderstood against the meaningless masses. Art itself is originality whereas the principle of Classicism was imitating the Antic models. Romanticism praised the aesthetic function of literature while Classicism valued the educational purpose of it. Artist had more freedom in expressing himself in the Romantic era than in the rigid worldview of Classicism.
In the Romantic era young individuals felt powerless against that rigid regime. Melancholy pervaded the air and the atmosphere of oppressive disappointment after the ideals of equality and justice of the French Revolution were never fulfilled, and the Napoleon’s demise made the society to perceive him as a fallen hero, fallen self-proclaimed hero, which again brought the disappointment. ‘Cult of reason‘ couldn’t and can’t explain the inequality of the world that hurt the young people so much. I find one of Novalis’ quotes very appropriate “Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.” How could rationalism answer the existentialistic questions one might ask oneself? What solution could rationalism have to cure the disappointment of the people with the false social values? Young people; misunderstood poets, artists, musicians and all the other sensitive individuals couldn’t find fulfillment and refuge in rationalistic ideas that were so popular only a century before so they had to find their own way to survive.
In literature this disappointment, unexplainable sadness and melancholy manifested themselves by escaping into solitude and one’s own vision of the world. Those are the sources of the pessimistic worldview, that is the Weltschmerz. ‘World-pain’ or Weltschmerz is an expression for the sense of sadness and despondency induced by discrepancy of reality and ideals. Physical reality can never satisfy the demands of the mind. Weltschmerz resulted in the ‘cult of pain’; a pessimistic sense of how there is no cure for evil in the world. This world pain that caused depression, escapism and resignation as the individual felt powerless against all the injustice in the world, occurred as early as in Rousseau’s (New Heloise) and Goethe’s work (The sorrows of young Werther). However, the world-pain gained its fullest form in works of Byron and Chateaubriand.
Artists of the time felt helpless, sad and disappointed. Surrounded by the tranquil solitude they found comfort in four major themes and preoccupations; intimacy and love, nature (especially exotic landscapes), history and folklore, and mystic and occult. Theme of love and intimacy is the most evident in Goethe’s work The Sorrows of Young Werther, historical themes were the most interesting to Victor Hugo thought he came to the scene a little bit later, and the dark romantic, Edgar Allan Poe is the king of mystical and occult, combing the themes of beauty and death.
Romanticism in English literature begins with the publication of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s collection of poems Lyrical ballads (1798). These two poets, along with Robert Southey, belonged to a group called ‘Lake poets’ for they lived in the Lake district; a picturesque mountainous area in north-west England. William Wordsworth considered poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” which he then “recollect[s] in tranquility.” Nature was, however, Wordsworth’s biggest inspiration and he admired it deeply, not only for its aesthetic values; he felt in it the closeness with the sources of life and inexhaustible wellspring of simple and eternal cognition of life. Nature mirrors the state of your soul; romantic poets reflected their feelings into nature, but they also did the opposite, the nature acted on the poets’ sensibility and his inner experiencing. These poets have been very important in setting the ground for the English Romanticism, especially for the second generation of poets.
I must say that I prefer the second generation of English Romantic poets; Byron, Shelley and Keats. Byron, as a person and an artist, is characterised by the fact that in reality he had lived a life of his romantic heroes. His numerous love adventures, travels to exotic lands and the willingness to sacrifice for the ideals of freedom; most importantly, for the freedom of another country – that shows the true nobleness. Byron is responsible for many innovations in poetry and for creating a new type of hero, that is, anti-hero or Byronic hero. Alongside Byron there were two more important poets; Shelley and Keats; both of them cherished a ‘cult of pure beauty’ and both of them died very young in tragical circumstances.
Literary type that emerged from the literature of Romanticism was a romantic hero; a sensitive, courageous and adventurous young man with a great love for nature and everything that is natural, and yet he is unable of controlling his own emotions. He is usually a victim of scheming, mistakes from his youth, his abruptness or his pessimistic attitudes towards life. Typical romantic hero, the best example is young Werther, perhaps even Karl Moor from Schiller’s play The Robbers, does not fit in in society, has a rebellious spirit, can be self-destructive and highly pathetic and excessive in statements.
Other type of romantic hero is Byronic hero, created by Lord Byron. Byronic hero is a man who despises everything and everybody. Though he can have many positive traits like courage or intelligence, he is not noble, kind or humane. He is a cynic and a skeptic, most commonly a materialist and an atheist, often full of contradictions. He loves to live life to the fullest but that desire is usually induced by boredom and a sense of meaninglessness. Byronic hero is a ‘cursed person‘, doing everything that stimulates his own demise. Since Lord Byron was extremely popular with Russian romantic authors, Pushkin was the first to be inspired by the Byronic hero, and derived a similar hero – Superfluous man. It’s a hero who feels superior to his surrounding and yet he submits himself to aimless actions not taking advantage of his potentials. Prone to self destruction, the superfluous man has a strong sense of boredom which compels him to seek oblivion on wanderings and travels. Typical examples include Eugene Onegin and Pechorin from Lermontov’s novel and the first novel of Russian literature – A Hero of our Time.
Romantic hero and Superfluous man are different but they do have similarities such as feeling of alienation and loneliness, intelligence, sensitivity, they both have tendencies towards traveling and excitement and the are fighters against the established social and moral norms.
Though poetry was the most popular form of expressing oneself in Romanticism, it was music that was considered the most romantic of all arts. E.T.A. Hoffman commented on the subject of music ‘The magic of music is so strong, getting stronger, it should break any shackle of another art.‘ Romanticists considered music to be almost like a mind-expanding experience; music revealed unknown areas to man, a word of imagination, a world completely cut out from earthly senses; music was romantic because its theme was the fathomless itself. Music was not only considered to be the most romantic of all arts, but also the spring of all other arts, and therefor lies its true greatness and importance. Novalis also made a remark on music – “Every disease is a musical problem; every cure is a musical solution.”
Beethoven was a musician whose work is considered to mark a transition between Classicism and Romanticism. Other Romantic composers were Frederic Chopin, Franz Liszt, Schumann and Schubert. Romantic musicians were rebellious when it came to themes, they were fascinated by nocturnal, mystic and spooky, longing to the infinite they were inspired by fantastic seeing and spiritual experiences, fascinated by the past, especially Middle Ages, interested in the autobiographical and emphasised extreme subjectivism, at the same time surrendering to nature.
My favourite romantic composer is Chopin; I absolutely adore his Nocturnes; their melody is of greatest melancholy and sadness and yet it possess untamed beauty and mystique. Oscar Wilde commented on Chopin’s music ‘After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own. Music always seems to me to produce that effect. It creates for one a past of which one has been ignorant, and fills one with a sense of sorrows that have been hidden from one’s tears.‘ Frederick Chopin grew up in Warsaw. His father was French, and Frederick soon moved to Paris, the center of Romanticism in music and the center of arts in general, and as soon as he arrived, his playing style amazed the posh aristocrat audience and gained him admirers. He soon befriended many famous artists and writers of the time; Victor Hugo, H. Balzac, H. Heine, Eugene Delacroix, and also F. Listz all became his friends.
Frederick was elegant and posh, he loved modern and beautiful clothes, champagne, he changed his white gloves every day and traveled in his own carriage. However, he was profound when it came to music and his playing style reflected both great strength and sophistication and sensitivity. ‘It should be like dreaming in beautiful springtime – by moonlight.‘ – he once described his sonata. However, Chopin was of frail health, always thin, weak and melancholic, he died aged thirty nine from consumption. Although befriended with many famous artists of the time, Chopin had a person in Paris he loved even more, it was George Sand with whom had a ten year long relationship. The two met on a party, but Chopin was repelled by her clumsy posture and short, fat, unattractive build. The two met again, two years later; Chopin was in state of melancholy because a young Polish girl had proved unfaithful him, and, devastated, he was improvising a lamentations on a piano when he saw George Sand standing on the doors. His eyes met with her eyes which were black, magical and velvety as the night. After he finished playing, she bent down and kissed him softly. The rest is history.
Romantic era with its emphasis on love and emotions, was an era of many great love stories; Elizabeth Barrett-Browning and Robert Browning, Clara Schumann and Robert Schumann, Mary and Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and Lady Caroline Lamb… the list is endless.
In Romantic era even death was romantic; it was considered a beautiful land of dreams where one could escape the harshness, troubles and greyness of reality. When one sleeps, one dreams and in death one would be dreaming forever, eternally united with nature. In dreams we see our innermost thoughts and desires, and when we die, we would be dreaming forever and ever; death is a dream and one should not be afraid of it. In life, Romantic poets were sad, melancholic, disappointment, alienated, lonely, burdened with social injustices, and powerless against established social and moral norms, and the only comfort and sweetness they could get was sleep; dreams. For Wordsworth, death is nothing more than returning to a more complete and satisfactory existence. Keats considered a death to be an eternal dream which is as beautiful as we create it; death is for him merely a sleep in which one sees the picture they most desire. There are no fears in death, only the ones we create for ourselves. Death is opposite of life, it’s an escape from reality and misunderstanding society, it’s the submerging in nature, becoming a part of the universe again. Life was hard for romantic spiritual philosophy since they lived in times when the Industrial revolution was changing lives and materialism was becoming dominant.
John Keats – ‘On Death’
‘Can death be sleep, when life is but a dream,
And scenes of bliss pass as a phantom by?
The transient pleasures as a vision seem,
And yet we think the greatest pain’s to die.‘
Percy Shelley, mon préféré Romantic poet, was especially fascinated with death and dreams. Highly sensitive, he hated life; its trivialities and the conventionality of society. Extremely devoted to the beauty and peace which he believed could only be found in dreams and death, Shelley was very close to committing suicide, as he felt an enormous ‘death urge‘; he wished to lose all his senses, all attachment from life, all communication with society and emerge himself forever in enormous beauty and magic that death beholds. He wrote a poem ‘A Lament’ in which he expressed his deep desires and longings for death.
‘O World! O Life! O Time!
On whose last steps I climb,
Trembling at that where I had stood before;
When will return the glory of your prime?
No more -Oh, never more!‘
I’m fascinated by deaths in Romantic era, thought people were always dying, and artists died young in many eras, there something so appealing in deaths of Romantic poets, musicians, painters or princesses. Perhaps the shortness of their lives, perhaps the sadness and tranquility that tortured them and maybe even induced their deaths… Shelley, Byron, Keats, Schubert – they all died young, but tragic and romantic death did not spare the members of aristocracy either, particularly interesting to me are Russian Grand Duchesses, sisters Alexandra and Elena Pavlovna who died very young; Alexandra died aged seventeen and Elena was just a year older when she succumbed to her eternal sleep. Later, Grand Duchess Alexandra Nikolaevna died aged only nineteen. In her portraits, she gazes at the viewer with a hint of melancholy and resignation, dressed in elegant satin, while her pale skin shows the beauty of her innocence, her stately neck stands as if it was fragile as a feather, carrying a beautiful face crowned with dark hair in braids. Aura of sadness followed Alexandra on her portraits like a shadow. She died, tortured by life, her beauty preserved in an eternal dream.
Sophy Gray, October’s child of woe and a beautiful girl, served as Millais’ muse in her teenage years.
Sophy was a younger sister of Millais’ wife Effie Gray that caused a scandal and controversy by divorcing her first husband, art critic John Ruskin and marrying John Everett Millais. Ever since her sister married the painter in 1855, Sophy, then only a girl, proved to inspiration for his as his focus in painting shifted from his darling wife Effie to younger, fresh like a rose bud sister, Sophy.
The first painting in which Sophy appeared was Autumn Leaves, and although only twelve at the time, her rosy cheeks and long auburn haired showed promise of a great beauty. Perhaps the most striking is the portrait of Sophy at the age of 13, painted by Millais, which radiates almost erotic kind of feel, provoking the questions about Millais’ relationship with his young muse. This peculiar portrait can be seen above; just look at those deep blue eyes that seem cold and unapproachable, yet thoughtful and sentimental at the same time, those fresh, rose like cheeks and sensual, raspberry coloured lips. Sophy’s beautiful face, verging into womanhood, at the same time possessing the innocence of a child, is framed with long, wild auburn coloured hair that seems as if it whispers Autumn on the first October’s breeze through the bare branches. Also, her head is placed so close to the viewer, giving the intimate feel to the painting.
Later, Sophy appeared in one more very interesting painting called Spring (Apple Blossoms), painted between 1856-59. Sophy is shown on the far left, touching her long, auburn locks, and gazing, yet again, with the overt sentimentality and sadness. She’s wearing a colourful, striped dress with wide sleeves. Her sister Alice, a few years younger, is painted in a rather provocative pose, lying in a yellow dress with a blade of grass in her mouth. However, Sophy’s lovely face, which first graced the painting Autumn Leaves is now maturing into a beautiful young woman. Eventually, Effie sent her away for she suspected that Millais might have been a little bit too intimate with her. These suspicions still remain without a proof, but Sophy did left the Millais household, although the sisters remained close.
In 1868. Sophy became unwell. Her letters suggest that she suffered from anorexia nervosa. In addition, she also became extremely restless and obsessed with music, in particular, her piano playing. Her speech also became incoherent. In March 1869. Millais wrote to the fellow Pre-Raphaelite painter, William Holman Hunt, that Sophy had ‘been ill a whole year, and away from home, with hysteria.‘ Although she recovered, her health fluctuated and it remained a problem for her, and others around her, for the rest of her life.
On 16th July 1873. Sophy married James Key Caird, a jute manufacturer, who later proved to be ignorant towards her health and neglectful toward her in general. They had one daughter together, Beatrix Ada, born in 1874. Sophy’s family didn’t like Caird either, considering his to be two faced, and still aware of Effie’s disastrous first marriage. Sophy, affected by Caird’s inconsiderate and uncaring behavior toward her, spent much of her time living with Beatrix, mostly living between Dundee and Paris.
In 1880. Millais painted the final portrait of her and some suggest that Millais had ”perhaps more than anyone, knew the secrets of Sophie’s [sic] short life, and in her hauntingly sad expression portrayed an old sadness of his own.” Indeed, sadness never seemed to have left Sophy, whose melancholic gaze was, even at the age of thirteen, merely a prelude to the later sadness in life. By that time she had become extremely thin, thought much of it was hidden under the vast amount of layers in Victorian clothing. Sophy died on 15th March 1882, aged only 38. The cause of death was determined as exhaustion and “atrophy of nervous system, 17 years.” There were suggestion that she might have killed herself, but none were confirmed.
Sophy, beautiful and melancholic Millais’ muse, remained only a shadow of her former beauty that can be seen on the paintings she posed for in her teenage days, only a shadow of a beautiful, rosy cheeked girl with deep blue eyes and auburn hair.