Saturday, April 27, 2013

Millais, John Everett

The Vale of Rest
oil on canvas
102.9 x 172.7 cm
Tate Gallery, London, UK

Of all the pictures that Millais created, this was his favorite. The title and subtitle, 'Where the weary find repose', both come from Mendelssohn's part-song 'Ruhetal' from Sechs Lieder, Opus 59, no.5. Millais heard his brother William singing the song and felt it suited the picture perfectly.

The nun on the left is digging a grave, which is positioned in such as way that the viewer appears to be in it alongside her. The second nun's rosary has a skull attached to it. In the background a coffin-shaped cloud - a harbinger of death, according to Scots legend - appears in the evening sky.
According to Millais' wife, Effie, 'It had long been Millais' intention to paint a picture with nuns in it'. The idea for the picture occurred to him on honeymoon in Scotland in 1855. As Effie explains, 'On descending a hill, he was extremely struck with its beauty, and the coachman told us that on one of the islands were the ruins of a monastery. We imagined to ourselves the beauty of the picturesque features of the Roman Catholic religion'.
The setting - excluding the tombstones, but including the terrace, shrubs and the wall in the background, with poplars and oak trees behind it - was Effie's family's garden in Perth. Effie recalled, 'The sunsets were lovely for two or three nights, and he dashed the work in, softening it afterwards in the house, making it, I thought, even less purple and gold than when he saw it in the sky. The effect lasted so short a time that he had to paint like lightning' . The grave and gravestones were painted some months later in an old churchyard in Perth.

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.