John Everett Millais (1829 - 1896)
Not 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 done.
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.