John Everett Millais (1829 - 1896)
long before his election to the presidency of the Royal Academy, Sir John
Everett Millais was walking with a friend in Kensington Gardens, London. He
suddenly stood still by the small Round Pond and said: "How extraordinary it is
to think that I once fished for sticklebacks in this very pond, and now here I
am a great man, a baronet, with a fine house, plenty of money, and everything my
heart could desire." And he walked on gaily.
This speech describes Millais - his history, his character, even his art, for,
as Sizeranne observes, in his studies of English contemporary art, they all
belong to a happy man. At the same time, Millais, although never really
acquainted with adversity, had a severe struggle to obtain recognition.
The real title of the picture opposite, for instance, is "Christ in the House of
His Parents," but when it was first hung in the Royal Academy in 1850, the
artist being only twenty-one years old, it was contemptuously called "The
Carpenter's Shop.'' Among its many denouncers was the novelist Charles Dickens,
then at the pinnacle of his fame. Imbued with the current concepts of art,
Dickens penned a violent attack upon the picture: "In the foreground of the
carpenter's shop is a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-haired boy in a
nightgown, who appears to have received a poke in the hand from the stick of
another boy with whom he had been playing in an adjacent gutter, and to be
holding it up for the contemplation of a kneeling woman so horrible in her
ugliness that . . . she would stand out from the rest of the company as a
monster in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin-shop in England."
Fortunately, not everyone felt as Dickens did. No less a champion than John
Ruskin, whose divorced wife eventually became Lady Millais, picked up the gage.
He was only the first in a long line of celebrated critics and connoisseurs to
lavish praise upon this canvas. Soon public appreciation was awakened; and today
art authorities are almost unanimous in holding that this is one of Millais'
masterpieces and one of the world's great pictures.
Millais was a precocious youth. He was English born, but of French descent, the
date of his birth being 1829 and the place Southampton. It is said that he could
trace his ancestry to the family tree of Jean Francois Millet, the famous French
peasant painter. He was the youngest pupil ever entered at the Royal Academy,
being only eleven years old at the time. Sketches are in existence, made by him
at the age of nine, that are astonishing things for a child of that age to have
At seventeen he exhibited his first picture, which was praised by some of the
critics as the best thing in the exhibition. At nineteen he made the
acquaintance of two other remarkable young men—Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Holman
Hunt—and with them formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which, for all of many
admirable qualities, produced some decidedly queer, not to say grotesque work.
Of the trio, Millais was the only thoroughly endowed artist. Rossetti was a poet
who painted, and Hunt was a doctrinaire who expressed his convictions in paint.
Millais is one of the very few artists of note who never really had to struggle
for a living: but the end of his life was pathetic. He had been knighted in
1885, and eleven years later was elected to the presidency of the Royal Academy.
He died suddenly, in 1896, having- been in office less than six months.