Tag Archives: John Everett Millais

Effie Gray – Early Flower Power

18 Jan

Flower Power is a phrase usually connected to the 1960s. First things that come to one’s mind regarding this decade are probably the hippie movement, Psychedelia, Swinging London, Woodstock, etc. Hippies were famous for their liberal attitude towards life, their rejection of social norms, and their free, back-to-nature lifestyle, but they were not the first to have such ideas. Wearing flowers in your hair as a sign of protest is nothing new.

1851. Effie Gray

Effie Gray, a very fascinating and liberal woman, most famous for being John Everett Millais’ wife. Lady Millais left her first husband, art critic John Ruskin, without the marriage being consummated, and married the more charming and handsome Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and figures associated with it have always reminded me of the counter-culture of the 1960s. They were very liberal, decadent, open-minded and adventurous, especially if you place them in a time period – the Victorian era. Their art often shocked both critics and the audience, but nevertheless left them curious and begging for more. With their art, the Pre-Raphaelites influenced the social norms and fashion too, and Effie, with her liberal ideas and bohemian attitude, blended perfectly in this Victorian avant-garde. She was a woman ahead of her time.

1853. Sir John Everett Millais, 1853, Portrait of Effie Ruskin, later Lady Millais (neé Euphemia Chalmers Gray)

While still married to John Ruskin, Effie is said to have worn flowers in her hair, perhaps as a sign of her assertive nature. As the relationship between Effie and her husband was becoming more and more difficult, Effie used every chance to defy him and prove herself independent. On a trip to Scotland with Ruskin, who was still her husband, and Millais, Effie gathered beautiful little pink foxgloves to place in her hair. Effie showed defiance upon wearing flowers in her hair again for breakfast, despite being asked by Ruskin not to do so.

A week before this ‘incident‘, on Midsummer Day, Effie wore stephanotis flowers in her hair at an evening party in Northumberland. The hostess, Pauline Trevelyan, noted that Effie ‘looked lovely’. Stephanotis flowers are usually white and are popular for their rich scent; the combination which makes them common as wedding flowers. That’s not the of Effie ‘scandalous’ behavior, while in Venice, Effie had removed her bonnet in the public, most likely because of the heat.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, their art and lifestyles, the whole atmosphere connected to it, has foreshadowed the hippie movement in the 1960s and played an important part in creating the ’60s aesthetics.

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Sophy Gray – Millais’ Muse

8 Oct

Sophy Gray, October’s child of woe and a beautiful girl, served as Millais’ muse in her teenage years.

1857. Pre-Raphaelite muse Sophy Gray by John Everett Millais

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.

1859. ‘Spring (Apple Blossoms)’ by Millais

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.

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.”

Elizabeth Siddal – Victorian Ophelia

19 Aug

Elizabeth Siddal was an artists’ model, poet, great Pre-Raphaelite beauty and most importantly artist’s muse. Her beautiful features were captured in the painting Ophelia by John Everett Millais.

1852. Ophelia by John Everett Millais

Elizabeth was at the heart of the Pre-Raphaelite artistic community, being married to Dante Gabriel Rossetti; a poet, illustrator, painter and most importantly – the founder of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Though she had artistic aspirations and loved poetry, it was her astonishing beauty that attracted the attention of Walter Deverell who not only employed her as a model but also introduced her to the Pre-Raphaelites. William Michael Rossetti, eventually Elizabeth’s brother in law, described her as ‘a most beautiful creature with an air between dignity and sweetness with something that exceeded modest self-respect and partook of disdainful reserve; tall, finely-formed with a lofty neck and regular yet somewhat uncommon features, greenish-blue unsparkling eyes, large perfect eyelids, brilliant complexion and a lavish heavy wealth of coppery golden hair.’

Unusual for the time, Elizabeth not only worked as a model but also at Mrs Tozer’s millinery part-time which secured her with regular wages, in case her modelling job became uncertain. In 1852. Elizabeth, aged nineteen, modeled for what was to be a very famous Pre-Raphaelites painting – Ophelia. Posing for Ophelia required Elizabeth to float in a bathtub full of water to represent the drowning Ophelia. Millais painted daily and since it was winter, he warmed the water by putting lamps under it. Still, on one occasion the lamps went out and the water became icy cold. Millais, so absorbed in his painting didn’t even notice and Elizabeth didn’t complain either but after this she became severely ill with a cold. Her father blamed Millais for this incident and forced him to pay for her doctor’s bill. Her poor health is attributed to laudanum she was addicted to and which eventually proved to be her undoing.

Besides the beautiful model, the painting is also known for its detailed depiction of nature and flowers. However, Millais ignored the initial Danish setting and the nature around Ophelia turned out to be quintessentially English with predominant English flowers and plants. Even more Victorian is Millais’ usage of the language of flowers; he incorporated red poppy flowers as poppy is a symbol of sleep and death. Ophelia’s garland is based on the one described in the play ‘There with fantastic garlands did she come/Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples’. Ophelia was painted in two stages; Millais first painted the landscape and then incorporated Ophelia’s graceful figure floating on the water. On Ophelia’s face Millais captured both beauty and sorrow, eternal suffering and defiance. Ophelia’s pose in this painting has been described as erotic, with its open arms and upwards gaze, but it is also resembles the pose of martyrs or saints.

Millais painted Ophelia along the banks of the Hogsmill River in Surrey, near Tolworth, Greater London. In vivid shades of green he depicted the wild and untamed nature, both its decay and growth. The atmosphere is static, yet the tree branches, the grass and sparkling white flowers appear as if they are alive, as if they’re dancing on the wind, stretching themselves to have a better view at poor Ophelia, tortured beauty slowly vanishing into the water; there Ophelia sings, unaware of her danger, incapable of her own distress and dies as her white gown, soaked in water, can not float anymore, just like Ophelia’s spirit, too weak for life, vanishes from her frail body. The process of painting nature wasn’t an easy job, Millais complained ‘The flies of Surrey are more muscular, and have a still greater propensity for probing human flesh. I am threatened with a notice to appear before a magistrate for trespassing in a field and destroying the hay … and am also in danger of being blown by the wind into the water. Certainly the painting of a picture under such circumstances would be greater punishment to a murderer than hanging.’

The scene of Ophelia’s death is praised as on of the most poetically written death scenes in literature and this painting, I would dare to say, is one of the most beautifully depicted scenes of Ophelia’s death in art. It is surely the first painting that comes to my mind when I think of Ophelia, the other is surely Alexandre Cabanel’s depiction of Ophelia painted a little more than thirty years after. Farewell, Ophelia…

”Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.”

1883. Ophelia by Alexandre Cabanel1883. Ophelia by Alexandre Cabanel

1894. John William Waterhouse's Ophelia1894. John William Waterhouse’s Ophelia

1889. Ophelia - John William Waterhouse1889. Ophelia – John William Waterhouse

1890s Ophelia - Constantin Meunier (date not sure)1890s Ophelia – Constantin Meunier (date not sure)

1900-05. Ophelia by Odilon Redon1900-05. Ophelia by Odilon Redon