John Everett Millais was one of the most important Victorian illustrators of the nineteenth century. Although he was one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelites Brotherhood, he would be the only member to abandon its principals completely.
John Millais was born in Southampton in 1829 to John William and Emily Mary Millais. Both of his parents came from wealthy families, his father from a prominent Jersey family, and his mother from Southampton saddlers.
The family moved to London in 1838 with the intention to groom their son’s talent. They used their family’s status to enroll John at the Royal Academy School in the summer of 1840. He was the youngest pupil to ever attend, which caused some resentment amongst the students. However, befriended by William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the group came to share a common bond when they became the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. A belief in inaccurate realism and bright colors inspired John’s first oil, ‘Cupid Crowned with Flowers’ (1841).
During the summer, preparation for a painting began by creating a large number of drawings that were used to paint the landscape backgrounds. The winter months were spent adding to the foreground. John’s attention to detail made painting a slow and laborious effort, but the results were magnificent.
One of his early paintings ‘Christ in The House of His Parents’ (1850) was met with derision. Critics thought the depiction of Jesus Christ and his family as ordinary people was a disrespectful act. His best paintings of the mid 1850s were perhaps his figurative pictures, including ‘The Blind Girl’ and ‘Autumn Leaves’.
The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood’s artistic views came under attack when it became obvious that they did not share the popular ideas of art at that time. Art critic John Ruskin was asked to intervene by writing a letter, which he did, to The Times on their behalf.
Scandal followed John Millais again when he fell in love with John Ruskin’s new wife Euphemia Chalmers This was humiliating for Ruskin who considered Millais a friend. It was rumored that Ruskin and Euphemia had not consummated their marriage, so when their marriage was annulled, Millais and Euphemia were married. He became a loving and devoted father to eight children, particularly indulgent with his daughters.
Marriage changed Millais’s art style as he no longer thought it economically possible to spend so much time on one painting. His style loosened and became broader, the result of which seemed to move with the times and produce a better income. However, always the subject of controversy, he was accused of ‘selling out’ for money and popularity. He concentrated on creating portraits of the rich and wealthy and acquired a fortune. In the painting ‘Twins’ (1876), the artist produced a portrait of the identical daughters of a wealthy manufacturer. Although they were identical in appearance, the artist managed to capture their unique characters on canvas.
John Millais was appointed a member of the Royal Academy in 1863, and appointed President of the Academy in 1896, the year he died. In 1892, the artist had been diagnosed with throat cancer. Even after death, the critics did not let up. An exhibition of his work at the National Portrait Gallery in 1999 was the subject of much hostility. While there may be controversy about the direction he took as an artist, some will agree that John Millais was one of the great nineteenth century artists.