About the artwork
'Spring', also known as 'Apple Blossoms', was painted by the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Millais. He exhibited it at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1859. This was the most important venue of the Victorian art world and artists reserved their best works for showing there.
The painting can be read on a number of different levels. On a literal level, Millais has painted a group of girls in a meadow, in front of an orchard full of apple trees in blossom. The girls are relaxing, seated or lying on the ground around a bowl of cream. One is pouring milk from a jug. Another is eating curds from a bowl. Bunches of flowers picked by the girls are placed in baskets on the ground. The painting is an example of Victorian realism, a modern scene, showing young girls in contemporary Victorian dress, enjoying a day in the country.
The painting can also be read on another level. On the face of it, this is a picture about youth and beauty, but it has a deeper message. On the right is a scythe, hinting at the inner meaning of the picture. The scythe is a traditional symbol of death, associated with the figure of 'Death, the Grim Reaper', often depicted as a skeleton carrying a scythe. Millais's message is that even the youth and beauty of the girls will come to an end. Flowers fade, the seasons move on and the summer grass is cut down at harvest time.
We know that thoughts of death were in Millais's mind when he first began work on 'Spring'. He was also working on a picture of autumn, entitled 'Autumn Leaves', now at Manchester City Art Gallery. This also depicts beautiful young girls but here they are heaping leaves on a bonfire in autumn at twilight. The end of the day, the end of the year, the dead leaves and the smoke are all symbols of the transience of earthly life and the inevitability of death. Millais may have originally thought of the two pictures as a pair. They share the themes of the decay of beauty, the cycle of the seasons, the inevitability of change and of death.
Though Millais did not write these ideas down about 'Apple Blossoms', he did write about 'Autumn Leaves' that he “intended the picture to awaken by its solemnity the deepest religious reflection.” The same applies to 'Apple Blossoms'. Unlike some of the early Pre-Raphaelite paintings, which are packed full of heavy symbols and coded references, this painting suggests its message quietly. The scythe is introduced casually placed to one side; it makes sense as a real object. Though it also operates as symbol, it does not disturb a naturalistic reading of the painting.
'Apple Blossoms' can also be seen in the context of the ideas about 'truth to nature' promoted by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Millais, as a young man, had been a member of this group of artists, founded in 1848. In the early days, the Brotherhood had been inspired by the teachings of the art critic John Ruskin. He advised artists to 'go to Nature…rejecting nothing, selecting nothing.' The influence of Ruskin is seen most famously in Millais's 'Ophelia' (1852, Tate Gallery), depicting an extraordinary profusion of botanical detail. The bright colour and minute detail of Pre-Raphaelite naturalism can also be seen in the Lady Lever collection in Holman Hunt's 'The Scapegoat' of 1854, hanging nearby. By 1859, when 'Apple Blossom' was completed, the Brotherhood had drifted apart, as each artist followed his own particular direction. Millais was moving towards a broader style, less sharply focussed in its attention to detail. The art critics attacked 'Apple Blossom' for what they saw as slipshod and coarse technique, criticisms that seem somewhat misguided to us today. Even if it is less insistently detailed than the earlier works, it is very much a painting about nature. It includes not only the apple blossom of the title, but also cowslips, bluebells, violets, lilac and gentian, all depicted with botanical accuracy. It is thus still faithful to the ideas of early Pre-Raphaelitism.
On yet another level of interpretation, 'Apple Blossoms' is a new kind of picture for the Victorian period - a landscape of mood. Not only is there less emphasis on detail than the early Pre-Raphaelite paintings, there is also no story and no specific characters; nothing much is happening. In this it is unlike many of Millais's historical narrative paintings, such as 'Sir Isumbras at the Ford' and 'The Black Brunswicker' (both at the Lady Lever Art Gallery). It is possible that Millais had in mind the fête champêtre paintings of Italian Renaissance artists such as Titian and Giorgione, where figures relax in beautiful landscapes. Millais's mood landscapes were very influential. They anticipates the figure compositions of dreamy young women, and the Nocturnes painted by James McNeill Whistler in the 1860s, where detail and colour are subordinated to overall atmosphere. 'Apple Blossom', with its combination of beautiful figures and idyllic landscape, creates a mood of contemplation, in which nature, beauty and death mingle.