Soft Soap: Peter Furtado Explores a New Exhibition at Tate Britain That Brings the Reputation of One of the Great Victorian Painters Up to Date

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LOVED BY THE PUBLIC, his fellow-artists and his large family alike, no one ever had a bad word for John Everett Millais (1829-98), and he has remained in the public eye for such iconic paintings as the dead Ophelia floating, still entranced in her love for Hamlet and surrounded by flowers (1851-52), and 'Bubbles' (1885-86), the portrait of his grandson which was turned by its first owner--and with the artist's full approval--into an advertisement for Pear's Soap. But there was far more to Millais' long career, during which he was the most technically accomplished, and the most commercially successful, and probably the most continuously innovative, British artist of his day.

Throughout his career he explored new techniques, new subject matters when he could have sat comfortably on his laurels; and according to Alison Smith, senior curator at Tate Britain and the person who has put this show together, he was 'a fundamentally modern artist, a man who focused on the ordinary aspects of existence in order to open up the meanings they contain.'

His career began in the late 1840s--as a teenage prodigy--in Pre-Raphaelite style (indeed, the Brotherhood was formed in his studio at Cower Street in April 1848), and he demonstrated his complete rejection of the Academic style in his arresting, psychologically complex 'Isabella' (184849). Over the next few years he was attracted to literary subjects, including Shakespearean ones, as he sought to communicate in paint the realities that his subjects could not detect through their senses. He was not afraid to shock with his audacious--apparently perverse--approach. 'Ophelia' was both the culmination of this phase, and a watershed--'his first picture to show great emotion, it made people cry when they saw it', says Smith.

Later in the 1850s he abandoned his trademark medievalism in favour of genre paintings, eschewing the temptations of classical themes and idealized forms in favour of more awkward subjects such as 'The Blind Girl' (1854-56), a painting of a girl experiencing a rainbow she will never see that baffled the critics with its non-doctrinaire religious feeling and its emphasis on form rather than narrative. 'His hypnotic portraits' are the key to his mysterious work of the late 1850s, says Smith: paintings such as the pair Spring and Autumn, each ambiguous--or even downright incomprehensible--in its imagery. In all this he was a precursor for the Aesthetic movement of the following decade. …

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