Dusky, velvety colours, intricate detailing and that peculiar mood of yearning and melancholy that pervades paintings from Millais’ early phase, make Mariana a true Pre-Raphaelite gem, comparable by beauty and emotional intensity only to the more famous Ophelia painted around the same time.
Painting Mariana is a beautiful and psychologically stimulating example of Millais’ early work and his devotion to the values of The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, that is, to study nature attentively, to have genuine ideas to express and to produce thoroughly good pictures. Pre-Raphaelites had a tendency to draw inspiration from works of literature such as Dante and Lord Tennyson’s poems, and plays by William Shakespeare. This painting is no exception. Its mood and composition instantly attract the viewer. A tired lady in a gown of shiny midnight blue velvet stands by the window, supporting her aching back with hands, gazing into the distance. That’s Mariana, a character from Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure and Lord Tennyson’s poem Mariana, a young woman doomed to a life of solitude because her fiancé Angelo abandoned her after her dowry was lost in a shipwreck at sea.
In her lonely, virginal chamber time stands still. Modern, Victorian interior in carnelian brownish reds and peridot greens is contrasted with old Medieval stained glass windows that show the scene of Annunciation which perhaps serves to compare Mariana’s waiting to that of Virgin Mary. If you look closely, you’ll notice a needle pinned into a discarded embroidery. Mariana seems occupied by her pursuit while seasons change and winds roar around her lonely claustrophobic abode. The abundance and lushness of late Summer transitions in Autumn as orange and green leaves come dancing softly into her cluttered Victorian chamber. Seasons change but her longing seems infinite and still. Autumnal nature dying in rich shades could symbolise Mariana’s inner dying. The seal in the right corner of stained glass windows reads In coelo quies or In Heaven there is rest, further implying Mariana’s suicidal thoughts as she contemplates on her dreary world. These verses of Velvet Underground’s song Venus in Furs remind me of Mariana’s emotions: I am tired, I am weary/ I could sleep for a thousand years/ A thousand dreams that would awake me/ Different colours made of tears.
At first sight, this painting seems like a simple Victorian genre scene; passive and sad woman in a dark cluttered room, in a Medieval-style dress, exhibiting a typical Victorian nostalgia for the past eras. However, Millais portrays a complex psychological state underneath the aesthetically pleasing exterior, and that’s what makes this painting stand out amongst other similar Victorian artworks. Attentive to details like he was in his early artistic phase, Millais managed to evoke Mariana’s feelings – her yearning, pain, loneliness and seeming resignation, mood of dreariness and ‘changes that all pass her like a dream’, as Lizzie Siddal, another Pre-Raphaelite muse, would late wrote in her poem. This painting is so iconic in my opinion, just like the famous Ophelia. You simply can’t think of the character Mariana without imagining the scene the way Millais portrayed it and he based the painting on this particular verse by Lord Tennyson:
“She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!’”
Looking at her pose and her surroundings you can feel her tiredness and desperation. You can imagine the broken thoughts running through her mind; What am I doing with my life? What awaits me? Will my life be this dreary forever? Perhaps she still feels the softness of her silk wedding dress under her fingers, but, oh, misery, all too soon she has buried it along with her dreams. Millais is quite daring in his choice of subject. In rigid Victorian world, a woman did well if she got married, and if she remained a spinster, well, that must be her fault. And here we have a dashing young artist portraying a sexually frustrated woman; a woman who is not content with being silent and doing her embroidery but wants more, from life and love equally. Almost twenty years later, a fellow Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti revisited the theme and painted his own version of Mariana; portraying her as a sensuous and arrogant femme fatale disdainfully gazing into the distance, using Jane Burden Morris as a model. I prefer Millais’ version because he, in my opinion, managed to portray Mariana’s feelings much better. I feel that in general, Millais is the poetic one, and Rossetti is the passionate one. With this subject, lyrical and poetical approach is better.
I recognise Mariana’s feelings in these lyrics written by Morrissey:
“And as I climb into an empty bed
Oh, well, enough said…” (The Smiths, I Know It’s Over)
Dream is gone, but Mariana’s loneliness is real. She could have been a bride and now she’s a fool. Oh, if only that dowry wasn’t lost at sea. If only Angelo had been more faithful. Please, save your life, Mariana, because you only got one.