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This tome is the most recent publication to promote Millais as one of the foremost painters of the Victorian period. Various exhibitions and catalogues have appeared in the last decade or so (see Background info box). This tide of attention may have been provoked by the anniversary of Millais' death in 1996, when Claire Donovan and Joanna Bushnell curated ‘John Everett Millais 1829–1896: A Centenary Exhibition’ at Southampton, but it has the hallmarks of the postmodernist revisionism that has brought innumerable figures of previously secondary or ambivalent reputation into the front line. In this procession of reappraisals, what can be claimed for this latest contribution?
Well, Rosenfeld's book is probably the largest and heaviest, asserted by the publisher to be 'the first monograph to appraise the artist's complete career'. It adopts a chronological approach, taking the reader from the artist’s beginnings in 1829 in a middle-class household in Southampton to a childhood in Jersey, and on to London. Here, his fond parents hoped the gifted boy would become an artist. The account follows his years of fame as one of the avant-garde Pre-Raphaelites and protégé of critic John Ruskin, to his steady emergence in maturity as a mainstream favourite and leading portraitist of the last quarter of the century, which found him earning an incredible annual income in the early 1880s – the present-day equivalent would be £2.3 million.
At his death in 1896, Millais's standing in late-Victorian culture – already manifested in the baronetcy awarded him in 1885 – was shown by his burial in St Paul's Cathedral, and the crowd-pulling memorial exhibition of 242 works put on at the Royal Academy 18 months later. The span of the artist's work embraced genre, the 'fancy picture', history and literary composition, landscape and portraiture in oils, and illustration and caricature in drawings. Unlike Edouard Manet or Frederic Leighton – contemporaries with whom Rosenfeld compares his subject – Millais seems not to have broached either still life or sculpture but, even so, he seemed to most of his contemporaries like a modern Old Master in his command of his field.
The question that has dogged Millais's reputation, of course, has been – and was, already was in his lifetime – how his progressive contribution to Pre-Raphaelitism could have led to such facile territory as My First Sermon (18??) – or, even more to the point, My Second Sermon (18??) – and The Boyhood of Raleigh (1870). This is no longer such a puzzle as it has been in the past, with our greater understanding of how artists' careers function. We have also been released from modernism's demands of ‘originality’ and ‘avant-gardism’ to sanction an artist's eligibility for attention, and Rosenfeld is keen to address question.
He wants to assert his man as a master of his era, not just on the terms that the artist’s contemporaries evidently accepted, but in early 21st-century terms as well. Hence his hero is brought into association with earlier benchmark figures such as Titian, Velazquez, Van Dyck, Hogarth, Reynolds and Murillo, as well as contemporaries such as Whistler, Manet and Sargent, and later touchstones such as Picasso and Matisse. Meanwhile, he also wants to make Millais a harbinger of Aestheticism, that post-Pre-Raphaelite trend in British art with which it is currently so cool to be associated, and to stand him alongside Leighton and G.F. Watts as a late-Victorian Colossus.
Putting Millais in his art historical context may make his works more comprehensible or richer than they might otherwise seem, but insofar as it is done in the cause of aggrandisement, it becomes irritating. Fortunately for the sceptical reader, the book is thickly sown with colour illustrations so that, despite the author’s close descriptions of individual works, where readers can see them on the page for themselves his inevitably positive judgements can be countered by personal scrutiny. The sense that Millais can do no wrong comes out especially in Rosenfeld's failure to confront clearly inept work, which, in such a long and industrious working life, the poor man should be allowed to have committed now and then. There is the awfulness of Esther (plate 74), along with blatant problems in such well-known works as Peace Concluded (plate 48), which go unaccounted for.
Not dealing honestly with the obvious unevenness of Millais' output, the author undermines the conviction of his own judgement and sensibility, provoking the reader to notice where he contradicts his own argument, fails to recognize a sitter (plate 91), doesn't 'see' works well (plates 114–15) and glosses over works he cannot explain.
Judiciously published at the same time as Tate's latest celebration of Pre-Raphaelitism, the book will make a substantial souvenir for gallery-goers.
John Everett Millais by Jason Rosenfeld is published by Phaidon, 2012. 256 pp., 173 colour illus, £54.95. ISBN 978-0-7148-3977-6