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.