Millais was adept at many things. At theatre, for instance: in his 1878 Royal Academy showpiece, he cast the supposed murder victims of Richard III as two pretty, tremulous schoolboys poised on a dungeon’s downward-winding stair, their spotlit heads peering into the darkness confronting them, hands anxiously linking, blond chevelures merging into one. The casting, the lighting and the face and body language that Millais drew out of his actors secured The Princes in the Tower an instant niche in Britain’s national image repertory, where it has remained ever since. Millais’s portraiture could grapple confidently with the auras of the mighty: Tennyson, Gladstone, Disraeli. He could also interpret religious themes with flair. In a mid-1860s engraving, the Sower of Jesus’ parable strides forth on his mission on a high bank above us: the bank is one of those ‘stony places’ where his seed cannot thrive, and we find ourselves facing its random rocks, lost in the unconsoling bleakness of geology. Here and elsewhere, Millais attends to the way that working lives interact with their terrain. You see it in his expansive late views of the Scottish countryside, for instance, or in the strong-armed nun who shovels brown earth from a grave in the 1858 Vale of Rest. At such points, Millais rubs shoulders with Jean-François Millet, his near homonym in France, and with 19th-century Realism in general.

But then The Vale of Rest, with its graveyard trees black against the late evening sky, intends a melancholy pictorial music, in which its factual content has no active part. As Jason Rosenfeld and Alison Smith, the curators of Millais, the Tate’s endlessly surprising new show, point out in the catalogue, the painting is an early harbinger of the Aestheticism that would swing into vogue during the 1860s.* Not long afterwards, Millais was painting harmonic ‘arrangements’ comparable to those of the movement’s frontman, Whistler. Esther, for instance, a Scottish girl decked in a Chinese robe playing a Jewish queen, makes its impact as a banner-bold blare of yellow against blue against white. The note this canvas strikes is louder and sharper than anything of Whistler’s; throughout his career Millais had a taste for strong local colour. As a 21-year-old Pre-Raphaelite in 1850 he gravitated towards the intense reds, golds and blues of stained glass in his Tennysonian panel Mariana, while in the society portraits of his middle age he found similar succulence in the ribbons and floral embroideries adorning his hostesses’ bustle gowns.

A great caesura, however, divided the former phase of his career from the latter: that has long been the first datum in all discussions of the artist. For seven years from 1848 the zealous young convert to medievalism yoked a virtually cloisonniste patchwork colouring to jagged, insistently awkward linear designs. In 1851 Ruskin started to champion him; in 1853 he fell in with Effie, Ruskin’s bride in a mariage blanc. After Effie became legally his in 1855, following a messy divorce, Millais switched to a distinctly post-Raphaelite tonal brushwork, building up lights and darks after the examples of Rembrandt and Velázquez. The conventional wisdom on this development is summarised by the 2001 Oxford Companion to Western Art: ‘From the time of his marriage Millais abandoned Pre-Raphaelite teaching for a broader, more painterly style and Pre-Raphaelite seriousness for vapid sentimentality … which pleased his Victorian audience and ensured worldly success.’ Alison Smith offers her own caricatural image of a career ‘path that uncannily mirrors the artist’s own body shape’; but she and Rosenfeld demonstrate that the stout middle-aged Millais can’t be dismissed as a bloated parody of his earlier skinnier self. Probably no career, on extended examination, could turn on quite such simple axes. In fact they show that the later manner represents an expansion of the artist’s reach.

The Pre-Raphaelite Mariana is the sum of its parts, an interior sustained by unremitting devotion to particulars: an annunciation and an escutcheon glowing in the stained-glass window, autumn leaves blown in through it to join a dead mouse on the floor, the blue velvet dress that hugs the protagonist as she disconsolately sways in solitude. Behind the obsessive examination of each item lurks a dogged pretence that it should mean something. The Virgin hailed by Gabriel and the snowdrop in the heraldic shield are both intended to imply that Mariana will yet find comfort. Sign by sign, viewers are to be returned to the symbol-reading mindset of van Eyck’s day: such is the Pre-Raphaelite programme. Millais’s absorption with his model, herself absorbed in a thoroughly fleshly unease, is palpable, but his commitment to the prescriptions cooked up by his colleagues Holman Hunt and Rossetti is less so. The heart of his performance is a delirious fascination with rich porous surfaces, and the iconography tags laboriously behind, half in bad faith.

The Eve of St Agnes (1862)

The Eve of St Agnes (1862)

Twelve years later, after the switch in technique, another solitary hourglass figure: the 1862 Eve of St Agnes shows the heroine of the poem undressing in her chamber on a moonlit winter night, lost in yearning for a lover while ‘her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees’. The heat in the poet’s breath has communicated itself to the painter’s brush, which rushes at the five-foot width of the canvas in a wild rolling scumble – here hitting deep bronze-russets, there scudding patina-green moonshine – performing a kind of love dance around the dreaming female. (Cold must have quickened the pace too. Following Millais’s customary methods, the canvas was painted straight from the motif, with both the painter and Effie – his model – shivering in a stately-home bedroom on a December night.) No redundant symbolising dogs the brushwork here. ‘A cursive mode of painting, almost disdainful in its certitude, which rapidly envelops forms, seeking only their accent and wanting to extinguish at a blow the general impression.’ Those are the words of Edmond Duranty, a great 19th-century French critic, describing Adolph Menzel, a great 19th-century German painter. They’re not far off when it comes to this canvas, and similar compliments might be paid to the 1881 portrait of Tennyson. But to quote them, or even to describe a Millais painting as a full-throttle erotic performance, is to touch on the status anxieties that nag all descriptions of High Victorian art.

Wasn’t all of this – from the 1848 Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to the 1880s ascendancy of Leighton, Watts and Burne-Jones – a massive insular detour? Wasn’t Millais, as the Royal Academy’s most popular hit producer, the epitome of an age of evasive imperial complacency? Mainstream art history places him as a stumbling-block on the path to a British Modernism, berating him for a failure to be Manet. It’s a problem of which Rosenfeld is well aware. His catalogue essay ‘proposes some ways of inserting Millais into the broader currents of cultural production in the late 19th and earlier 20th centuries, into what might be called a borderless art history’. Rosenfeld finds that Van Gogh looked closely at Millais (as also at Israëls, Monticelli and many other now neglected contemporaries); that the Tate’s celebrated Ophelia was once quoted by Dalí; that Millais won prizes from international juries; that ‘other avenues’ of possible connection – Klimt, Menzel, Mucha, Moreau – ‘have been too little explored’. His initiative is fine, but it seems to clutch at straws.

Truly to set Millais on a common footing with Manet, Menzel et al, one might have to abandon some large assumptions that shape current talk about art. We need to get a grip on artistic careers: we twine them up around imaginative obsessions. From the onset of Romanticism at least, curators and critics have had an interest in defining ‘individual visions’, and art-school and gallery systems have encouraged artists themselves to hone their product to fit. But Millais somehow escapes these moulds. The only consistent concerns of the one-time infant prodigy who, after his youthful dalliance with ideology, took his manager wife and their eight children on an upward social trajectory, seem to have been hard work and sound professional practice. A self-portrait of 1880, requested of the maestro by the Uffizi, records a bland incurious glance at the mirror; but that inert canvas aside, Millais’s inquisitiveness is strikingly various. So much of the exhibition’s appeal lies in its sheer diversity. The selections often exasperate but rarely bore. Among the mature works, St Agnes, The Princes in the Tower and the portraits and landscapes join engravings for Trollope’s Orley Farm (the novelist rejoiced in their hard-researched exactitude); the notorious winsome Bubbles; a mad multiethnic historical hodgepodge entitled Jephthah, and a great dark martyrdom of St Stephen done shortly before the painter’s death in 1896. Each project seems to head in a separate direction; perhaps there are as many obsessions as there are pictures. Winnow down, and you might well find exhibits on an energy level fit to set beside Continental Modernism.

But the studios of Victorian London present a further resistance to what now constitutes intelligible artspeak. It is true that 19th-century British criticism dwelt extensively on the way paintings are made: like Duranty, Ruskin was much concerned with facture. Yet the fundamental faith remained that just as a painter was only as good as each painting he delivered, each painting was only as good as its subject. Following the Pre-Raphaelite days, when Elizabeth Siddal had to soak in a cold bath for hours to give Ophelia her reality and Millais could only make good his melodrama The Order of Release, 1746 by obtaining a bona fide legal document to paint, the new aestheticism that gained shape in the late 1850s depended on luring specimens of authentic female beauty to the studio. Surely, if this was painting, not theatre, Millais was committing a basic category mistake?

‘Suppose we get the loveliest woman procurable, and put her in the finest robe imaginable! Suppose we even design the dress! … Ought not the product to be a very syrup of the purest taste? Why should it not be able to contain la bonne peinture as well?’ The joshing was Sickert’s in 1908, aimed at his former mentor Whistler, but it could apply to Whistler’s older rival as well. ‘I find it difficult to say why it cannot,’ Sickert went on, exploring the fallacy of asking a picture’s perfection to rely on its model’s, ‘but we all know that it cannot.’ And every critical voice involved in art over the intervening century would surely agree with him. Yet it is difficult to keep apart the representation and its immediate stimulus. In his commentaries on the girls languishing in an orchard in the 1859 Spring, Rosenfeld makes no such effort: ‘Most are very attractive… Most lovely is the girl … in red.’ And how could one fail to see what he means? This exhibition is indeed a feast for any sweet tooth. But that way, art writing slides towards that of the copywriter, and departs yet further from the international critical discourse into which Rosenfeld yearns to insert Millais.

Millais won’t be co-opted for modernity, because apart from his eye for female fashion, he had no particular grip on the times he was living in. He avoided the urban scene and his few dips into social commentary were soft-hearted and timid. That might be one way to lend his elusive temperament at least a negative definition. For Victorian commentators, it was just as relevant that this non-Modernist was not Lord Leighton, was no classicist, orchestrating balmy symphonies around the themes of Art. By comparison, his own pictorial voice rang solitary and plaintive; witness his early love for the angular, his hankering for keen colour, his insistence on naive transcription of immediate particular fact. His cadences tended to pathos, a natural route to popularity. A hint of female sorrow, or more than a hint – Mariana’s, Ophelia’s, the gravedigging nun’s – was the cue for one high-earning composition after another. Was this pathos a hook on which Millais hung anxieties of his own? Not exactly. Underneath his flirtation with bogus medieval iconography, I see him as mesmerised by the possibility that what he painted might disclose its fullness if he simply attended hard enough to its surface. What object could be more poised on that brink of meaning than a woman’s turning face? Waiting for the whole thing, sensing that it eludes the eyes: that is how The Blind Girl of 1856, merely sniffing at the dazzle that surrounds her, comes at once to stand as his most original personal invention and as his corniest, most blaring Academy hit.

It’s not an anxious oeuvre: it’s rather a rootless one. From the teenage Academy pupil trying his hand at Baroque and Neoclassical to the master of the Palace Gate studio borrowing a trick or two from Whistler, it’s the CV of a fabulously able jack-of-all-trades with a certain lack of self-direction. Of critical intelligence, in fact: that’s why the most gifted painter in London never reached the level of Degas or Menzel. But his residual integrity (pace the Oxford Companion’s badmouthing) at length found itself an adoptive home terrain. Fittingly, Rosenfeld and Smith close their arresting revisionist exercise with 13 autumnal landscapes, all painted in Perthshire. By-blows perhaps of the shooting and fishing seasons of Millais’s stout middle age, they explore as powerfully as any late 19th-century paintings what it is to walk a land and learn its rhythms. Paths and fences, stones and waters, sedge, pines, snows: the paint that realises them lands on the canvases with an illimitably various touch, from a painter who seldom set down a graceless mark.

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