John Everett Millais

John Everett Millais

John Everett Millais was a famous British painter, founder of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood.

Early years

John Everett Millais was born on June 8, 1829 in Southampton (Hampshire). He was the youngest of three children in the family of John William Millais and his wife Emily. Both parents came from wealthy families. John Millais the Elder was from Jersey – one of the Channel Islands, and mother’s family lived in Southampton, where her father had a big saddler’s workshop.

The boy spent part of his childhood in Southampton, part – on the island. He was a quiet, obedient kid and received education at home – Emily taught the son. John started drawing when he was four. According to the family legend, at the age of six, while staying at Jersey, which is closer to France then to England, he made some sketches of French soldiers. They were stricken and took those drawings to the quarters to demonstrate them to the mates. Some of the officers doubted these were works of a six-years old boy and made a bet – and lost, certainly.

Millais’ parents decided they had to help the bot to master his talent and sent him training to a local artist. After several lessons the latter said he had nothing to teach that gifted child. Then John’s parents set off to London in 1838, where they met with recommendation of Sir Martin Archer Shee – President of the royal Academy of Fine Arts. At first he was skeptical about little John, but changed his mind after looking through his album with works.

After preparation in the art school of Henri Sass, 11-years-old teenager enrolled the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. He was it’s youngest student and they called him “the child”. Very soon Millais met William Holman Hunt – a person, who would become his life-long companion. In a short while an eccentric by his character Dante Gabriel Rossetti joined the company of undivided friends.

Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood

John Everett Millais studied for six years at the Academy and proved his outstanding skills. In 1843 he received silver medal for drawing and in 1846 his painting “Pizzaro seizing the Inca of Peru” was chosen for a summer exhibition of the Academy, where it was highly appreciated. A year later the painter was awarded with Golden medal for his historical composition “Elgiva seized by the Soldiers of Odo” Exactly at that successful for Millais connected his life with an ambitious association of young artists “Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood”.

The group was established in 1848 by seven idealistically orientated young men – four artists, two art historians and one sculptor. They believed that then-contemporary British art was strained, detached from life and insincere, so Pre-Raphaelites wanted to revive it and chose Italian painting of Quattrocento (15th century) as their ideal – the period before Raphael Santi (that what gave the name to the group). They had no particular program and were manifesting only that artists should refer to nature and stop searching for other sources of inspiration.

Apart from Millais, Holman Hunt and Rossetti participated in the group. They supplemented each other very good. Hunt was considered to be a thinker and theoretician, Rossetti infected everyone with his enthusiasm and Millais was the “creative center”.

In 1849 friends organized first exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite artists. At first their pieces had been favorably accepted by critics, but soon attitude to the association changed. The biggest portion of “shafts” befell on John Millais with his “Christ in the House of His Parents”. The harshest review was published by Charles Dickens (which didn’t hinder him from becoming his friend and big admirer later). The master was blamed for disrespectful treatment of the Holy Family and was carried away by details instead of concentrating on spiritual content of the canvas. Only famous art-critic John Ruskin expressed support to Pre-Raphaelite.

Anyway, Millais was upset, as “Christ in the House of his Parent” was his first failure. After that case he decided to reject from religious subjects and shifted to romantic costumed scenes that were popular at exhibitions of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Among them such paintings as “Ophelia” (1851 – 1852), “Huguenot” (1851 – 1852), “The Order of Release” (1852 – 1853). John’s new works received wide recognition and in 1853 he was elected as a member of the Royal Academy – in 24 years, the youngest age, when a person officially got right for such position.

Millais’s early creations were rendered scrupulous and virtuous technique, that captivated minds of his contemporaries. Even Dickens in his pamphlet mentioned that waste chips on the floor in his “Christ in the House of his Parent” were depicted with extreme tangibility. Because of the artist’s meticulousness the process of work often dragged on. He made etudes and landscape backgrounds in summer and painted figures into them in his studio in winter. For every canvas John did dozens of sketches and drafts of figures, faces and hands.

Personal life

In summer of 1853 John Ruskin invited John Everett Millais and his brother William to spend holidays in Scotland together with him and his wife Effie. Brothers stayed there for four months, the artist managed to paint an excellent portrait of Ruskin with Scottish landscape on the background and… fall in love with his wife. It’s important to note that marriage of Ruskin and Effie had been unhappy from the beginning and she left her husband for John. Their relations ended with marriage and birth of eight kids.

Millais was a loving, caring father and often painted his children and grandchildren. Elder daughter Effie posed him for “My first sermon”. And for another well-known picture – “Bubbles”, which had been used (for the first time in history!) in advertisements for “Pears soap”, ‑ the artist had asked to pose his grandson Willie, who would later become admiral Sir William Milbourne.


Gradually Millais gained high reputation and even some admirers among the wealthiest people of England. Engravings from his paintings were sold out in huge numbers. In the end of 1850s, he tried his hand in book illustration. Among his graphical pieces, illustrations for poems of Alfred Tennyson (1857) and the parables of Jesus (1864) should be noticed. He also cooperated with “Once a week” magazine and illustrated series of novels by Anthony Trollope.


John’s marriage gave a new impulse to development of his painting language. Dry manner of preceding works with lots of details was replaced by more liberate, unrestrained one, characterized by vivid pastose brushstroke. Having to provide for his big family, he couldn’t afford himself long-term, complicated multi-figural compositions, so Millais stopped disregarding common tastes, desiring to conciliate his creative interests and demands of potential buyers. And his heritage of late 1850s contains true samples of Victorian taste, like “Blind girl” (1854 – 1856) or historical “A Dream of the Past: Sir Isumbras at the Ford” (1857).

However, Millais didn’t play up with public. Sometimes he occurred in opposition to it. Like it was in situation with “Autumn leaves” (1855 – 1856) – a canvas that disappointed viewers with absence of plot or moral didacticism. That was untypical for art of Victorian epoch, but the artist tried to evoke “deep religious feelings” through an unpretentious scene. The same case was with landscapes: John worshipped nature as embodiment of God’s power. His “Chill October”, show at International Exhibition in Paris in 1878, delighted such master as Meissonier, who was forced to avow that the British “can paint too”.

In 1863, being 34-years-old, John Everett Millais was elected a Royal Academician. Very few painters got such rank in such early age.

In 1870s the master seriously dedicated himself to portraiture. He had painted portrait before, for sure, ‑ of his relatives, mates, but now rich and noble clients came to his studio. Nevertheless, he never lowered himself to slapdash and flattery. Portraits of Thomas Carlyle, Sir Henry Irving, Lord Tennyson witness influence of academic style, which defines all his later art. Good income allowed his family to buy a big mansion in a prestigious district of Kensington (these estate is now called Millais House, where the Art Fund is based now). In 1879 Millais’s moved to a more luxurious dwelling, built specially for them. There he spent his last years.

Last years

In 1885 John was created a baronet – the first artist, who was honored with such title. His life was shadowed by only one fact – after the divorce of Effy with Ruskin Millais couldn’t curtsy his wife to Queen Victoria.

The only painter, whose fame could compare to Millais’s one, was lord Frederick Layton. With his death in January of 1896 the presidential chair of the Royal Academy occurred free. So John Everett Millais was proposed as a candidate to it. He agreed, despite being already incurably ill with throat cancer. During few months of fulfilling of duties as a President of the Academy, the artist displayed his unique personal features: he took away from the exposition his piece to replace it with the work of a young unknown artist.

John Everett Millais died in his house on August 13, 1896.