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A perceptive account of one of England's greatest artists,
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This review is from: John Everett Millais (Hardcover)
This book is most welcome since there is no other recent book that surveys in such detail the whole output of Millais in the context of his life. The Tate exhibition catalogue is valuable but does not have an over-riding theme (Millais). Rosenfeld's aim is to show that Millais was an artist "bent on continuous stylistic and thematic originality throughout his [long and] extremely productive career." In doing so, Millais's works "established new realms of endeavour in the period" that led to developments adopted by several later artists. When you finish this very readable book, you will find yourself largely convinced by the author. He has an uphill battle because a common view is that, after his Pre-Raphaelite masterpieces, Millais's work degenerated into routine. Rosenfeld calls this "a pernicious work of art-historical fiction" which he dispels convincingly by close examination of his art. And what wonderful art it is!
Assessed objectively, his later paintings are magnificent and original, especially the Scottish landscapes, but the problem is that we always see them in the context of what must surely rank among the world's great masterpieces: his early Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Rosenfeld writes perceptively about `Isabella', a "transcendent picture about the intense ardour of a constricted and restrictive love.... It is the summit of realism, its codification and crystallization." He goes on the write: "The picture engages..... in its concentration on human connection, however restricted and awkward, and through a pained clarity of form and features." Rosenfeld agrees with Holman Hunt, who considered it the most wonderful picture that any youth under twenty years of age ever painted.
Rosenfeld has interesting things to say about Millais and women. In commenting on `The Order of Release' he writes that the woman's face (that of his future wife, Effie Ruskin) is remarkable in its inscrutability and that "Millais seems to have been making his reputation on imaging women with distant out-of-body gazes: Mariana, Ophelia, The Bridesmaid, this picture, and Eve of St Agnes.... It is as if the artist is making a study of female psychology under duress, of varying forms of trance." This interpretation would fit with the famous painting `The Huguenot' where surely Rosenfeld is wrong to say that the searching gaze of the woman is into the face of her lover; close inspection shows that she is gazing beyond him into space. There is an erotic element in some of his paintings of young women, notably `Autumn Leaves', which Rosenfeld calls "his most lovely picture", and in the portrait of his wife's sister, `Sophie Gray' that adorns the cover of the book. He describes the latter portrait as an "entrancingly radiant depiction of incipient maturity, of adolescence on the wane, of sexual potential" and considers it one of the finest realistic portraits of the nineteenth century. `Autumn Leaves' also introduces a theme that was going to obsess Millais for the rest of his life, nostalgia coupled with the concept of mortality. We are here moving into the early phase of Aestheticism, together with two other paintings of groups of women (`Spring') which includes a scythe, traditional symbol of mortality, and `Sisters' that Rosenfeld compares with Whistler's `White Girl'.
Rosenfeld's interpretations of Millais's works are penetrating and fascinating all through this book. They give much food for thought even if you don't always agree with them. His descriptions of the wonderful late landscapes are particularly enlightening, as are his comments on the many portraits Millais did in order to earn a living. You are left with a feeling of complete admiration for what this great artist achieved and with a deeper understanding of his significance in the history of art and of our time.
On a technical level, the book is well-produced with many excellent large reproductions. The smaller reproductions are not always so successful but on the whole the pictures are sharper and have a better colour balance than in the Tate catalogue. For more detail of the portraits, the catalogue of the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery can be consulted (Millais Portraits).
We have been fortunate recently to have magnificent books on three of the Pre-Raphaelite artists, Rossetti (Rossetti: Painter and Poet), Burne-Jones (The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination) and now Millais. Perhaps it is time for a book on Holman Hunt.