Sunday, March 10, 2013

Millais, John Everett

The Blind Girl
oil on canvas
62.2 x 82.6 cm
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, UK

This painting depicts two itinerant beggars, presumed to be sisters, one of whom is a blind musician, her concertina on her lap. They are resting by the roadside after a rainstorm, before traveling to the town of Winchelsea, visible in the background. The elder of the two girls, with her eyes closed, is blind.  She is homeless and forced to beg for sustenance by playing her concertina, which we see on her lap. Her wretched plight is emphasized even more by the sheet of paper hanging around her neck with the words “PITY THE BLIND”. A tortoiseshell butterfly rests on the blind girl's shawl, implying that she is holding herself extremely still. The younger blonde girl, who is partly perched on the lap of the blind girl, is looking back at the double rainbow and the enchanting landscape below this phenomenon. Various buildings and some trees dot the skyline of the hill. Some art historians interpret Millais’ depiction of the double rainbow as a Christian symbol of hope and the Millais' belief at that time that there was a connection between the beauty of nature and the divine handiwork of God.

This painting has been interpreted as an allegory of the senses, contrasting the experiences of the blind and sighted sisters. The former feels the warmth of the sun on her face, and fondles a leaf of grass, while the latter shields her eyes from the sun or rain and looks at the unusual spectacle of a double rainbow that has just appeared. Millais has chosen as his subject for this painting the social evil of the day - vagrancy among children and the disabled.  Millais hoped that his painting would elicit sympathy from its viewers for the plight of this blind girl and those like her.
When the painting was first exhibited in 1856 it was pointed out to Millais that in double rainbows the inner rainbow inverts the order of the colors. Millais had originally painted the colors in the same order in both rainbows. He altered it for scientific accuracy.

Sir John Everett Millais (1829 - 1896) was born in Southampton, England. His family was of French descent. In 1838 he attended Henry Sass' Drawing School and the Royal Academy in 1840. While still a youth, he won various medals for his drawings. With Rossetti and Hunt, he founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. Ophelia,  exhibited in 1852 at the Royal Academy, marks the culmination of Millais' youthful period.

Endowed with a virtuoso technical skill, he rapidly outstripped his colleagues and won lasting fame. He was elected a member of the Royal Academy and served as President in 1896. Millais' works never failed to elicit praise. His remarkable technique lent his canvases a unique distinction, particularly in his last paintings, long after the exhilaration of the radiant Pre-Raphaelite period had died away. Towards the end of his life, he turned to portraiture. He was also a fine illustrator.