John Everett Millais was a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Their work was characterized by its bright color and accurate realism. His most famous painting, Ophelia, illustrated a scene from Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet.
John was born in England in 1829. He was a naturally talented child prodigy. He won medals for his drawings. He attended the Henry Sass’ Drawing School, and he was the youngest student to ever attend the Royal Academy of Arts in London. He was admitted when he was only 11 years old. His first painting was Pizzarro Seizing the Inca of Peru.
He founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood with two of his schoolmates, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rosetti. The art movement was a rebellion against the classical poses and elegant compositions made popular by Renaissance artists like Raphael and Michelangelo. Millais and his friends wanted to paint with more detail, color, complexity, and realism. Some historians were considered their brotherhood the first avant-garde, or experimental, movement in art.
Millais won “lasting fame” when he exhibited Ophelia in 1852. The masterpiece demonstrated the painter’s expert skill and his Pre-Raphaelite ideals. Elizabeth Siddal lay fully clothed in a bathtub to model for the painting and, with special attention to detail and nature, John created the “pictorial ecosystem” that made his work famous.
The artist’s paintings of strong, beautiful women became symbols for the Victorian Era in which he lived. Later in life though, Millais also painted illustrations, landscapes, society portraits, and sweet, fanciful images sometimes used for advertising. He became very rich painting celebrities and royalty, and by reselling his paintings for use in books and posters. His critics accused him of “selling out” to become rich and popular. Millais defended himself though. He argued that he could work with greater boldness as he grew more confident as an artist.
John Everett Millais was elected to the Royal Academy in 1863. He worked as a teacher there, and he even served as its president until he died in 1896.
Millais and his wife had eight children. He was the first artist to earn a royal title for his family. And King Edward VII commissioned a statue of John Everett that can be seen today in front of Tate Britain, formally known as the National Gallery of British Art.
I knew nothing about John Everett Millais until I discovered this painting, The Blind Girl, in book of art for children. I love the poetry of the painting, its color, composition, execution, and idea. And it inspired me to research the artist himself. As a teacher, I found lots to share with my students, but my favorite subject was Millais’s use of sketches and models to create his illustrations. It is one of the magic tricks of art, I think, that artists can pluck an image from their minds and give it some reality in pictures or sculptures. A master’s use of references and preliminary sketches help me share that skill with my students.
Portrait of John Everett Millais drawn by yours truly