A born artist

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John Everett Millais was born on 8 June 1829 in Southampton, Hampshire, England. At a very young age Millais, just like any other child of his age, started to draw but his parents – a prominent Jersey-based couple named John William Millais and Emily Mary Millais – noticed something different in Millais’ drawings. For a young boy, he showed exceptional character and discipline in his early drawing and his parents soon realised their son was a born artist.

His mother in particular who was an avid fan of arts and music, identified Millais’ talent and encouraged him to study arts academically. As a result, the young Millais entered the Royal Academy of Arts. At the tender age of 11 Millais became the youngest ever enrolment of the academy and soon he was regarded as a child prodigy.

At the academy, Millais studied traditional and conventional art. The former arts education he received from a very young age has influenced his works immensely and this influence can distinctly be observed throughout his artistic work. His portraits and landscapes show a clever manipulation of space, depicting the keen understanding Millais had of depth perception. He used bright and dull colours in balance, and when painting people he filled the frame of the painting with human figures to show balance and to reduce empty spaces; which is another iconic trait of the academic arts at the time. He was also influenced by the Renaissance giants Titian, Da Vinci and Raphael.

Although his paintings showed academic styles, common colour combinations, and conventional themes, many of his paintings are considered to be rather controversial. He paid great attention to detail and concentrated heavily on bringing out the beauty and complexity of the natural world but contents of his early paintings were heavily criticised.

His painting, ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’ depicts the working class Holy Family labouring in a messy carpentry workshop. In terms of colour combination, attention to detail, and depth perception, this is an exemplary painting but Millais was heavily criticised for his realistic and ‘dirty’ portrayal of the Holy Family which lacked the conventional divinity.

‘Ophelia’ is another Millais painting that shows great attention to detail. The painting depicts Ophelia, a character from William Shakespeare’s popular play Hamlet, singing before she drowns in a river in Denmark. Although it is now considered as a brilliant work of art and one of the best by Millais, it wasn’t initially considered a good painting. Despite the style, colour combination, attention to detail, and light balancing were immaculate, the critics found the depiction of Lady Ophelia in a mossy stream to be odd and even perverse.

‘The Ruling Passion’ shows how talented Millais was in drawing human figures and bringing out impressions through facial expressions. The painting depicts an old man lying on a bed showing a stuffed bird to a group of children and a woman. It is said the painting was inspired by a visit Millais and his son had to the orthodontist John Gould before his death. The painting was completed in 1885 and unlike his earlier work, it was well-received.

Another brilliant painting of human figure by Millais is ‘Jephthah’ which now is on permanent display at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff. The oil-on-canvas painting was completed in 1867 and depicts the sad scenes at the Israelite General Jephthah’s residence who was forced to kill his only daughter after he had promised he would sacrifice to God the first thing he saw upon his return home if he was able to win a certain battle.

The ‘Leisure Hours’ is another masterpiece by Millais which is now on permanent display at Detroit Institute of Arts. The painting which shows two young girls sitting behind a goldfish bowl, uses red and gold, and gives out a warm feeling.

The vast majority of Millais’ paintings that gained popularity and fame are portraits or paintings containing a lot of human figures but he was equally talented in drawing landscapes. His 1870 oil painting ‘Chill October’ depicts a bleak Scottish landscape in autumn and a perfect example of the talent Millais possessed in differentiating foreground and background in a painting.

Other famed and acclaimed works by Millais include; ‘Isabella’, ‘The Boyhood of Raleigh’, ‘A Huguenot on St. Bartholomew’s Day’, ‘The Vale of Rest’, ‘The Black Burnswicker’, ‘The Eve of Saint Agnes’, and many more.

Millais died on 13 August 1896 due to throat cancer.

(Translated by Sanuj Hathurusinghe)

By Chandana Ranaweera