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Sunday, November 13, 2011

John Everett Millais

Every painter has horror stories regarding his or her desperate efforts to put down on canvas precisely the image they've imagined in their minds. They range from minor annoyances such as getting the light just right, or the model to cooperate, or the flies to leave the rotting fruit alone in the cantankerous still-life; to major disasters such as the wind blowing over ones easel with it's wet landscape masterpiece. The Pre-Raphaelite painter, John Everett Millais records the trials and tribulations of just such difficulties while working on one of his best known masterpieces, Ophelia.  Before going on I should note that the Pre-Raphaelites, as a group, were a rather anal-retentive brotherhood of Mid-nineteenth century English painters often more prone to romanticizing the past than painting it. Some of the group's members could count on the fingers of one hand the number of works actually completed during their entire lifetimes. In general, it could be said they were sticklers for detail; and rather the type to give perfection a bad name. Millais was no less so, though on the whole, more talented than most of them; and eventually (once he married and had a growing family to support), broke free from their precisionist style into one more in keeping with earning a living at his trade.

Ophelia, 1851-52, John Everett Millais
Ophelia was painted over the course of approximately nine months beginning around June of 1851 with preliminary sketches which, by July had proceeded to working on location beside a stream known as the Hogsmill River (other sources list it as the River Erwell in Surrey). The painting depicts a fully dressed Ophelia lying beneath the water staring up at the viewer. The background was painted on location over the course of several months with the artist sitting right next to the stream, in the midday sun, under an umbrella. Early on he was presented with a magistrate's summons for trespassing in a field and destroying the hay. Later, after the hay was cut, he received yet another summons for admitting a bull into said field. Further adding to his travails were assorted flies and a couple of pesky swans who insisted upon watching him from exactly the area he wished to paint and going beyond that, eating the very water weeds he was struggling to depict. In chasing them off, he apparently dislodged his easel, painting, and palette from it's precarious position next to the stream, and though his account, in letters to a friend, doesn't spell out the consequences, the young artist seems to have had a thoroughly unpleasant time of it. He noted that "...painting under such circumstances would be a greater punishment for murder than hanging."

However, once the background was done, there still remained the bulk of the painting to complete. Another artist, under such circumstances, would have had his work cut out for him in painting a fully dressed woman lying underwater. Presumably the woman and the water would have been painted pretty much separately. But Millais was a Pre-Raphaelite (at this juncture in his carreer) so nothing would do but that his model, Elizabeth Siddel, should lie out flat on her back, fully dressed, in a shallow tub with only her face and bosom protruding from the water. The water was kept warm by the use of oil lamps placed beneath the tub (probably burning smelly whale oil). This ordeal went on several hours a day for more than four months during the winter of 1851-52. The artist's progress often amounted to little more than a square inch of canvas per day. The agony seems to have been worth the effort however. At a time when critics were pounding all the Pre-Raphaelites, numero uno art critic of the day, John Ruskin, praised the work profusely while fellow Pre-Raphaelite, William Rossetti deemed it the best likeness of Elizabeth Siddel ever painted. Millais went on to a long and distinguished career, eventually becoming president of England's Royal Academy, the same organization that had awarded him a silver medal at age nine.
William Rosetti, photo
by Julia Margaret Cameron
John Ruskin, 1853-54, John Everett Millais

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