Sir John Everett Millais was an English portrait and historical painter who worked in the second
half of the 19th Century. Millais was born in Southhampton in 1829. Millais' family came from the Channel Islands, hence the French name. He was not of recent French descent. We have very little informatiin about his boyhood. He was popular in his day, but is today not well known outside art cirrcles. He has been criticized by art experts for "sickly sweet portraits of children". His reputation as an artist is currently undergoing a re-evaluation. While few today would be able to identify his paintings, his work "Bubbles" is noe of the best known artistic works ever painted. It also played an important part in the history of advertising.
Millais was born in Southhampton in 1829. Millais' family came from the Channel Islands, hence the French name. He was not of recent French descent. I have no details on his childhood or how he was dressed as a boy.
Millais attended Henry Sass' Drawing School (1838). While still a youth, he won various medals for his drawings.
He went on to study at the Royal Academy (1840). While there he met William Holden Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. They were dissatisfied with the governing academic artistic standards. This was the inspiration for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (1848). The Pre-Raphaelites were concerned with enfusing their works with moral content and believed in a relism based on nature study and historical accuracy. Hunt many years later wrote about this. [Hunt]
Millais married Euphenmia Gray in 1855. Their relationship would have been gist for the modern tabloids. He called her Effie. She initially married the famed Victorian critic, John Ruskin, who at the time was an imapasioned defender of Milais' art. Their marriage, however, was never consummated. One never knows about such things, but apparently on the wedding night, Ruskin was appalled by his wife's pubic hair. It is hard to believe, but he had apparently previously only seen "artistic" nudes. Whether this is true or not, Effie was examined medically, found to be virgo intacta. The marriage to Ruskin, as a result, was legally annulled.
Effie quickly married Millais and had eight children. The fact that Millais was thus acquainted with Ruskin's most personal secrets seems to have a debilitating impact on the great critic. Millais concerned with his wife's honor turned on his great promoter. As this was most ingratious to someone who had championed his work, Millais had to pretend that Ruskin was a monster. The next act in this 19th Century soap opera can only be guessed at. Effie's family burned most of her letters which must have been quite a read. At root, the Millais relationship was a marriage of opposites in the extreme. She liked travel and longed to visit the great cities of Europe, he disliked travel. He loved to spend long hours fishing, she detested the sport. She was a spendthrift while he appears to have been tightwad. Most of all, he was a passionate man who had a prodigious sexual appetite while she had a Victorian lady's outlook, regarded intercourse as bestial. Both parties appear to have been, at first glance, one-dimensional human beings. Millais was a painting machine and Effie a 19th century 19th century shopaholic. Millais was a creative genius while Effie was a neurotic malcontent. It is far beyond this web site, however, to sense he can make of this tangled menage.
The couple had eight children. I have no details, however, on the children or how they were dressed. Interestingly, I do not know of any paintings of the children. (This of course does not mean there were none.) We do know that he painted his grandson William for the famous "Bubbles" painting in 1886. I'm not sure if William was especially costumed for the portrait or if that was what he normally wore. The boy was painted while blowing bubbles out of his grandfather's pipe--hence the name "Bubbles". Perhaps Millais did not paint his own children because he was too busy making money painting rich peoples' children. His portraits were done for rather staggering commissions. For example he was paid £1,000 for the Liddell portrait. That would be about £70,000 (over $110,000) in terms of 2000 money.
Millais exhibited at the Royal Academy when he was only 17 years old. His first painting, Pizarro Seizing the Inca of Peru (1846), is considered on of the best historical works as was highly praised at the time. He became associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Holman Hunt. His first Pre-Raphaelite painting was a scene from the Isabela of Keats, recalled the manner of the early Flemish and Italian masters. From the onset of his "Pre-Raphaelite" school association with Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Millais was attacked from the contemporary guardians of artistic taste. Many focused their criticisms on Christ in the House of his Parents (1850). His accusers charged that he was a purveyor of low life, and that he only provided a naturalistic rendering of subject matter. His biographer, Fleming compares the brouhaha over the "Jesus as Carpenter" painting to the recent controversy over Kazantzakis's novel The Last Temptation of Christ. Ophelia, begun in the summer of 1851 and exhibited the following year at the Royal Academy, marks the culmination of Millais' youthful period. Endowed with a virtuoso technical skill and
encouraged by Ruskin, he rapidly outstripped his Brotherhood colleagues and won lasting fame. Eventually the Victorian arbiters of good taste gave his work their approval, Millais settled into a comfortable Establishment niche. Thereafter, one finds no internal struggles or metaphysical questions in
Millais's life. His conflicts were all with other humans. The bane of his life was John Ruskin. It was Ruskin's critical championship that initially led to the general acceptance of pre-Raphaelite art, and at
first, Millais regarded him as a guru until Euphemia Gray came between them. He was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1856. Other major works include: "The Boyhood of Raleigh" (1870), "Chill October" (1871), "The Northwest Passage" (1873), and "Effie Deams" (1877). Millais was created a baronet by Queen Victoria in 1885 and elected president of the Royal Academy in 1896. Millais' works elicited great praise at the time. His remarkable technique lent his canvases a unique distinction, particularly in his
last paintings, long after the exhilaration and achievement of the radiant Pre-Raphaelite period had died away. In his later years, he turned to portraiture. He was also a fine illustrator.
Like many succesful artists, Millaise painted portraits of wealthy patrons. Millais' portrait work includes several portraits of children, providing fascinating glimpses of the clothes worn by wealthy Victorian children during the second half of the 19th Century. The wealthy children he painted were not costumed, but wore their own clothes. Millais is today not a well known painter to those who have not studied art. Even so, one of his paintings, Bubbles, is one of the most well-known images to the public at large, few who could name the artist. The painting was completed in 1886. Millais originally named it, 'A Child's World'.
Like many succesful artists, Millaise painted portraits of wealthy patrons. Millais' portrait work includes several portraits of children, providing fascinating glimpses of the clothes worn by wealthy Victorian children during the second half of the 19th Century. The wealthy children he painted were not costumed, but wore their own clothes. Millais may have made suggestions as to what the children should wear. Here we are not positive just hiw he worked. While we think that the children normally wore their own clothes, some of the outfits do not seem consistent with the second half of the 19th century. We do not always know the names of the children.
Millais is today not a well known painter to those who have not studied art. Even so, one of his paintings, Bubbles, is one of the most well-known images to the public at large, few who could name the artist. The painting was completed in 1886. Millais originally named it, 'A Child's World'. It shows William James, the artist's grandson playing with a pipe and bubbles. William being associated with this picture all his life. He made the Royal Navy his career. He became Admiral Sir William James. He wrote many books and died aged 92 in 1974. This famous late-period painting by Millais, Bubbles, became notorious when it was acquired by the Pears soap company for advertising purposes. Long after Pears stopped using it, the image was reproduced on dishes, candy boxes, and it countless commercial medium in England, America, and the Continent. Few images in the history of art have been so widely disseminated. This perhaps affected Millais' reputation among the cognoscente who considered such comercialization to be a crass defilment of art.
Many of Millais paintings were quite famous in the 19th century through engravings that were widely published. Jo Banks informs HBC that her great great great uncle, Thomas Oldham
Barlow RA, engraved many of Millais' and other Pre Raphealite works. Barlow and Millais apparently had a close realtionship. Jo tells HNC that in "The Ruling Passion" (The Ornithologist), painted in 1885, that her Uncle Tom sat for the figure of the ornithologist.
We have only a few examples of Millais' portraits, but they do provide some interesting insights, especially on Little Lord Fauntleroy suits.
Fauntleroy craze: Millais' portraits show that velvet Fauntleroy suits were very popular with wealthy English patrons during the late 19th Century. This popularity appears to have predated the American Fauntleroy craze. The portrait of Charles Liddell, for example, was painted over a decade before Frances Hodgson Burnett published Little Lord Fauntleroy. The portrait of Hugh Cayley was painted two decades before the publication of the book. As Mrs. Burnett was born in England and attuned to English fashion, no doubt the popularity among the English upper crust help to influence the velvet and lace outfits she popularized for American boys.
Fauntleroy colors: We generally think of Fauntleroy suits as black velvet, primarily because of the black and white photography. The portraits of the day, however, show that they came in many colors. The portrait of Charles Liddell show a brown velvet suit. Another Millais portrait shows a green velvet suit. American portraitist John Singer Sargent painted a grey velvet suit.
Hair styles: American boys outfitted in Fauntleroy suits tended to have either short long hair or long ringlet curls. English boys, on the other, hand had more varied hair styles. Some had short hair and ringlet curls. Another common style was the French fashion of long, but uncurled hair. Many of the French boys with long uncurled hair wore hair bows , but this appears to have been less common in England.
Boys' attitudes: One Millais subject indicated very definitely what he though about his velvet suit and lace collar. Charles Liddell prevailed upon his parents because of the way his portrait came out. Millais was requested to paint over the large, intricate lace collar and cuffs. He replaced the lace collar with a more boyish Eton collar. The area he painted over is clearly visible on the painting.
Millais had a long, varied career and his body of work is controversial career. Two controversial aspects of work are his career as a portraitist and his representations of gender and childhood. While he is celebrated for his early Pre-Raphaelite narrative paintings, such as Christ in the House of His Parents with its minute detail and complex symbolism, in the latter part of his career he produced paintings noted for the modern sentimental subjects. In addition he became well known for Bubbles and Cherry Ripe, two of his most famous commercial paintings of the late 19th Century. There's a new exhibition of Millais portraits in London during 1999. One critic in reviewing the exhibit
bemoaned how the painter abandoned the pre-Raphaelites to paint society portraits including "sickly sweet portraits of children."
Fleming, G.H. John Everett Millais.
Hunt, Wiliam Holden. Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (1905).
Millais, John Guille. The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais (1899).
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