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A LESSON OF MILLAIS

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The Database of Ornament

THE burial of Millais in St. Paul’s should have been an honour
done to a great painter, who died at the age of thirty-five, the
painter of “The Eve of St. Agnes,” of “Ophelia,” of “The
Vale of Rest ;” it was but an honour done to a popular
painter, the painter of “Bubbles,” and other coloured supple-
ments to Christmas numbers, who died at the age of sixty-
seven. In the eulogies that have been justly given to the late President of the
Royal Academy, I have looked in vain for this sentence, which should have had
its place in them all : he did not make the “great refusal.” Instead of this, I
have seen only : he was so English, and so fond of salmon-fishing.

It is not too much to say that Millais began his career with a finer promise
than any artist of his time. In sheer mastery of his brush he was greater than
Rossetti, greater than Holman Hunt, greater than Watts, greater than anyone
but Whistler. He had the prodigal energy of genius, and painted pictures
because he was born to paint pictures. It was at his studio that the Pre-
Raphaelite Brotherhood took form, and he was the most prominent member of
the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He was elected an Associate of the Royal
Academy at the age of twenty-four, a Royal Academician at the age of thirty-
four. Up to then he had painted masterpiece after masterpiece, pictures
in which there was temperament, intention, a noble interest. From that time
to the time of his death he painted continuously, often brilliantly, whatever
came before him, Mr. Gladstone or Cinderella, a bishop or a landscape. He
painted them all with the same facility and the same lack of conviction ; he
painted whatever would bring him ready money and immediate fame ; and he
deliberately abandoned a career which, with labour, might have made him the
greatest painter of his age, in order to become, with ease, the richest and the
most popular.

Art, let it be remembered, must always be an aristocracy ; it has been so,
from the days when Michel Angelo dictated terms to Popes, to the days when
Rossetti cloistered his canvases in contempt of the multitude and its prying
unwisdom. The appeal of every great artist has been to the few ; fame, when

58                              THE SAVOY

it has come, has come by a sort of divine accident, in which the mob has done
no more than add the plaudits of its irrelevant clamour to the select approval
of the judges. Millais alone, since the days of that first enthusiasm in which
he was a sort of fiery hand for the more slowly realizing brains of his com-
panions in art, has made the democratic appeal. He chose his subjects in
deference to the opinion of the middle classes ; he painted the portraits of
those who could afford to pay a great price. His pictures of pretty women
and pretty children had the success, not of the technical skill which was always
at his command, but of the obvious sentiment which makes them pretty. The
merit of these interminable pictures varies ; he was sometimes more careful,
sometimes more careless. Mastery over the technicalities of painting he
always possessed ; but it had come to be the mastery of a hand which worked
without emotion, without imagination, without intellectual passion ; and with-
out these qualities there can be no great art.

The newspapers, in their obituary notices, have assured us that in honour-
ing Millais, we are honouring not merely the artist, but the man; “of the
Englishmen who have been the sons of Art,” said “The Times,” “scarcely one
has deserved more honour than Millais.” My thoughts have turned, as I read
these commendations of the good citizen, so English, so sporting, whose private
virtues were so undeniably British, to a painter, also a man of genius, whose
virtues were all given up to his art, and who is now living in a destitute and
unhonoured obscurity. It has seemed to me that there, in that immaculate
devotion to art, I find the true morality of the artist ; while in the respectability
of Millais I see nothing to honour, for its observance of the letter I take to
have been a desecration of the spirit.

                                                                        ARTHUR SYMONS.

MLA citation:

Symons, Arthur. “The Lesson of Millais.” The Savoy vol. 6, October 1896, pp. 57-58. Savoy Digital Edition, edited by Christopher Keep and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/savoyv6-symons-millais/