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Art History 101 – John Everett Millais

“Have you heard of the Pre-Raphaelites, especially artist John Everett Millais?”, my boss, Linda Wehrli asked me. I admitted I hadn’t. What is a Raphaelite, let alone a Pre-Raphaelite in the first place?! When she showed me samples of Millais’ work, my jaw dropped.

John Everett Millais - Ophelia
Ophelia
The Return of the Dove to the Ark 1851 by Millais
The Return of the Dove to the Ark

I had to learn more. Linda recommended we feature him while clarifying the term Pre-Raphaelite, in our next Art History 101 blog. Here is what I discovered.

First, I needed to get my head around the term “Pre-Raphaelite”. First question: who was this Raphael? Thanks to The J. Paul Getty Museum, I learned Raphael was the Italian Renaissance master, otherwise known as Raffaello Sanzio, who lived from 1483 – 1520. A year after his father’s sudden death, Raphael entered the workshop of Urbino’s leading painter at age twelve and quickly surpassed his master. In his 20s, Raphael moved to Florence where he was greatly influenced by the works of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. His many Madonna and Child images glowed with a human warmth, serenity, and sublime perfection favored during the High Renaissance (1490s – 1527).

Raffaello SanzioSistine Madonna 1513-1514 by Rafael

Wait a minute. The Pre-Raphaelites started a brotherhood in 1849. That was the Victorian Era (1837–1901). If “pre-” means before (in time, place, order, degree, or importance), why weren’t they calling themselves Post-Raphaelites? Was this a hidden message or a code? Brotherhoods often have secret handshakes and code words. I had to dig deeper.

The J. Paul Getty Museum again, provided the answer. The Pre-Raphaelites were a group of English artists who rejected the Academy’s conservative teachings that art of the High Renaissance was the ideal. Members of the PRB (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) felt that the classical poses and compositions of Raphael in particular had been negatively affecting academic teaching of art. To them, High Renaissance art was their “McArt” – just following a formula. Dissatisfied with the state of British art, the PRB wanted to study and revive the art produced before Raphael, known as Quattrocento Italian art (1400s). They felt artists from that era such as Sandro Botticelli, produced art more true to nature and more honestly crafted, abundant in detail and complex compositions. The PRB initials were “code” for the arrival of a new movement in British art.

Sandro Botticelli Annunciation 1489-1490

John Everett Millais, the founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, painted with meticulous attention to natural detail, using intense color and complex compositions. Looking for new subject matter, Millais in particular, was known to use the writings of English writers such as William Shakespeare and the Romantic poets for his inspiration. Millais first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1846, with Pizarro Seizing the Inca of Peru. He won a gold medal in 1847 for his painting The Tribe of Benjamin Seizing the Daughters of Shiloh.

John Everett Millais, Pastimes for a Lifetime, Blog
“The Tribe of Benjamin Seizing the Daughters of Shiloh”
John Everett Millais, Pastimes for a Lifetime, Blog
“Pizarro Seizing the Inca of Peru”

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However, in the 1850s, with a family to support, Millais’ could no longer afford to spend the time on perfecting details demanded of the PRB form. His style gravitated towards a broader and loose style, while also shifting the themes of his paintings from intense, morally uplifting themes to meet the public demand for images that evoked emotion and told a good story. Many of his later paintings portrayed his two sons, such as the painting, The Boyhood of Raleigh, 1870.

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John Everett Millais, Pastimes for a Lifetime, Blog
“The Boyhood of Raleigh”

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Millais went on to become one of the most successful artists of his time, receiving many honors including being knighted as a baronet, allowing him to place the title “Sir” before his name. He also was nominated as the President of the Royal Academy in 1896, the year of his death. Near the end of his career, Millais stated, “I may honestly say that I have never consciously placed an idle touch upon canvas”. This is certainly evident in his exquisite artwork.

I hope this article inspires you to learn more about John Everett Millais and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

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Art History 101 covers selected artists from periods of history that continue to influence today’s culture. If you enjoyed this story, please feel free to share on your favorite social media to get the word out about this great artist and the PRB! Thank you for your support.

For more on Pastimes for a Lifetime’s Art Curriculum and founder/instructor Linda Wehrli, visit the website or Facebook page.

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4 Comments

  1. Frank M Pelteson

    I am always fascinated by the emergence of artists using perspective presentation of images. There emerged a proliferation of paintings showing tiled floors that receded to a vanishing point on a horizon. It was a great step forward in the arts.

    My late mother, Edith Pelteson, who studied Art History at Heidelberg University in the early 20th century, left behind some serious art historical books which I admire.

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