The tate Britain’s latest blockbuster exhibition showcases the work of the Victorian artist John Everett Millais. He is most famous for his founding role in the innovative and rebellious Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. But Millais is also well known for subsequently selling out and painting sentimental pictures for commercial gain.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed in 1848 – a time of mass industrialisation and political upheaval – by several artists who were frustrated at the brutality of industrial society and the constraints of Victorian convention.
The Pre-Raphaelites rejected academic artistic conventions, in particular the insistence that Italian Renaissance painting had set the standards for composition and subject matter in painting.
They denounced the Royal Academy as a reactionary institution and official art as conservative and pretentious, and called for a wide ranging artistic and moral renewal.
In particular, the Pre-Raphaelites looked back to the “primitivism” of Medieval painting. This was a move away from grandiose historical and religious subjects towards a more intimate style that emphasised emotion and literary themes.
The Pre-Raphaelites scandalised the Victorian art establishment. Millais’s 1850 painting Christ In The House Of His Parents was considered offensive for showing a young Jesus Christ with a drawn and tired looking Mary in his father’s workshop. The Times called the picture “plainly revolting” for showing sacred figures in the poverty and dirt of mundane existence.
As well as biblical themes, the Brotherhood were strongly influenced by literature. Millais’s most famous picture is of Shakespeare’s Ophelia drowned and floating downstream, surrounded by meticulously detailed flowers and foliage.
The poet John Keats was another major influence. Millais’s painting Isabella is based on a Keats poem and provides an excellent illustration of the tenets of the Pre-Raphaelites.
It shows Isabella and her lover Lorenzo sitting at dinner, oblivious to the tension among the other family members who oppose their relationship. The suppressed emotion on each face enlivens what appears at first glance to be a flat and decorative picture in Medieval style.
The Pre-Raphaelites believed the task of artists was to express thoughts and emotions while holding to the idea of “truth in nature”.
This makes for paintings that are often highly contradictory. At best they capture a longing for an age of mystery and values lost in the ravages of industrial progress. At worst they are little more than Victorian sentiment in Medieval form.
In his later work, Millais continued to produce realistic depictions of the natural world combined with emotion and spiritualism. But his stylistic radicalism slipped away and his paintings became increasingly traditional.
By the 1860s industrial capitalism was advancing at extraordinary pace. Radical movements such as Chartism were finished and England had become the “workshop of the world” – and would remain so for 25 years.
During this period Millais moved towards the ideas of painters such as Frederic Leighton and James Whistler who advocated “art for art’s sake”. This emphasised technical details such as composition, detail and decoration.
By the 1870s, Millais had made his peace with academic art. His earlier revolt behind him, he became a member of the Royal Academy. His work became larger in size – and more grandiose and indebted to the Renaissance traditions that he had rejected in his youth.
The curators of the Tate exhibition try to argue that Millais’s later work somehow continues to be radical, in terms of artistic technique at least. They insist that the notion of Millais as a young rebel who sold out, ending up churning out popular sentimental tat, is wide of the mark.
Yet on the evidence of the exhibition it is hard to justify these claims. The last years of Millais’s career illustrated in the exhibition are taken up with portraits of the great and the good of Victorian society.
There are also the so called “fancy pictures” – nauseating chocolate-box images of children, such as “Bubbles” which later became a promotional picture for Pears’ Soap.
Late Victorian society – or at least the class that Millais painted – was rich with the gains of empire. Millais is an uncritical describer of that culture in his later work. The use of “Bubbles” to sell soap is justified on the grounds of the “democratisation of art”. In fact it is more about promoting bourgeois views to the “lower classes”.
The last rooms show nothing more than a conventional painter pandering to the pretensions of his class. It has no indication of Millais’s earlier radical rejection of the values of profit, nor his empathy with the realities of oppression proclaimed by industrial society.
Judging by this exhibition, Millais’s art suffered for his capitulation to Victorian capitalism.
Millais runs at the Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1, until 13 January. Tickets cost £11. For more details go to » www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/millais