John Everett Millais: Biography & Paintings

Instructor: Elise Kohli
Sir John Everett Millais was a British artist, most famous for his contribution in establishing the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. This lesson highlights Millais' personal and professional lives, focusing on his realistic art and role within the Brotherhood.

Early Life

Sir John Everett Millais was an British painter and illustrator who lived and worked during the Victorian era. Born June 8, 1829 in Southampton, England, to a well-known and prominent family, Millais showed artistic talent at an early age. In 1838, Millais and his family moved to London to pursue his art education. He first started at Sass' Art School and before being admitted to the Royal Academy, a top art school, at age 11. Millais was the youngest pupil at the Royal Academy, a child prodigy, earning him the nickname of 'The Child'. The talented artist earned silver and gold medals for his artwork at the Royal Academy. Millais exhibited his first work, Pizarro Seizing the Inca of Peru with the Royal Academy in 1846. The Royal Academy led Millais to meet and befriend future Pre-Raphaelites, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

Millais was a founding partner of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood with two other artists, Hunt and Rossetti. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a small grouping of Victorian artists dedicated to painting real, lifelike subjects with high attention to detail. This view of the subjects was unusual for the time, caused controversy, and made the Pre-Raphaelites popular with the public.

Millais, Hunt, and Rossetti formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. The Brotherhood opposed the Royal Academy's support of the master artist Raphael. An artist during the Renaissance, Raphael's style depicted only perfection, avoiding images of real life or true reality. While many artists agreed with his ideals and followed his style during the 1800s and early 1900s, the brotherhood opposed his view that imperfections should not be shown in art.

Rather, the Pre-Raphaelites showed very lifelike images within their art. Early works created by the brotherhood were largely religiously-themed, but they grew to find inspiration from literature and poetry, as well, dealing mostly with love and death. Millais, the most gifted out of the group, produced art that was highly detailed, realistic, and focused on the beauty of the natural world. His first Pre-Raphaelite painting was Isabella exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1849.

Notable Paintings

In 1850, Millais showed, Christ in the House with his Parents at the Royal Academy. This painting represented Christ, as a part of a working class family, at his parent's messy carpentry shop. Staying true to the Pre-Raphaelite ideals of showing reality, Millais confronted criticism for this painting. Showing Christ and his family as members of the working class created controversy, as many took offense to Millais' choice to not glorify Christ as God, but instead to show the family as real, regular people on Earth.

1850, Christ in the House with his Parents
Christ in the House of his Parents

During his work with the Pre-Raphaelites, Millais produced other famous works, including The Order of Release and Ophelia.

Ophelia, 1852

Ophelia, one of his better-known works, exemplifies his dedication to detail and his ability to achieve hyper-realism with paint. His dedication to his work was unusual for the time. In fact, Millais spent multiple months outside by a local stream to get a sense of the landscape and also had his model lay in a bathtub fully clothed to get every detail.

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