About the artwork
'The Black Brunswicker' is a seminal work in Millais's career. It depicts an imaginative, dramatic incident highlighting a historical moment on the eve of the battle of Waterloo in which the young woman is dressed for the ballroom, the young man for the battlefield.
The Black Brunswickers was a special troop raised by Frederick William Duke of Brunswick (1771-1815) in 1809. The regiment consisted of 'the best German gentlemen' and was known as the Death or Glory regiment, a name deriving from their distinctive death's head hat badge and their evident devotion to duty. The troops suffered severe losses at the battle of Quatre-Bras at Waterloo in 1815.
The intensity of emotions is well conveyed in the close encounter of the couple, the girl's body attempting to obstruct the soldier from leaving. The dark and confined space enhances the intensity of the moment. The work appeals both to spectators' patriotism and sentiments. The little dog at the soldier's feet, lends a note of comedy to a scene which precedes a possible tragedy. On the wall of the room there is an engraving of David's painting depicting Napoleon crossing the Alps serves as a reminder of Waterloo. It also alludes to events in 1860 when Napoleon III entered upon a war in Northern Italy in an attempt to expel the Austrians.
Millais had received much criticism for his painting 'Christ in the House of his Parents' (1850 Tate Britain) and from then on avoided religious subjects and turned to literary ones. In 1857 Ruskin spoke of Millais's painting 'Sir Isumbras at the Ford' (also in Lady Lever Art Gallery) as "not merely a fall - it is catastrophe". However Millais's reputation was in some way restored with 'The Black Brunswicker' because of its sentiments and the technical brilliance that marked a return to his early painting style.
In early works such as 'Lorenzo and Isabella' and 'Sir Isumbras' Millais stayed loyal to the principles of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Later pictures depart from mere attention to detail and avoid minute transcriptions of nature. His more suggestive and symbolic rather than descriptive later style can be seen in 'Apple Blossom' (also in Lady Lever Art Gallery).
John Everett Millais was born in Southampton to a wealthy family from Jersey in the Channel Islands. Millais's talent for drawing led his family to move to London to further his art education. After training in the Sass's School in London he enrolled at the Royal Academy at the unusually early age of eleven. At the Royal Academy he met the painters Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
The three young students were disappointed with the teaching at the Royal Academy and the style of painting which prevailed there. They believed that the greatly stylised and idealist manner of established painters in the Royal Academy had deprived art of its spirit and the capacity to move spectators. In their efforts to promote a new type of art, less reliant on classicism and the ideal, the three painters together with others, founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood's name refers to the artists belief in the superior nature of art before the time of the Renaissance artist Raphael (1483-1520). This style of painting was distinguished by clear detail, brilliant colour and sharp outlines. Millais marked the establishment of the Pre-Raphaelite movement by including the initials 'PRB' on the bench where Lorenzo and Isabella are seated in his masterpiece from that era, 'Lorenzo and Isabella' (Walker Art Gallery). The movement was in reality only a loose association that did not last more than a few years despite the fact that the founding members and artists carried on painting in a similar manner.
Millais met John Ruskin, the British writer and art critic, who supported the cause of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, in 1851. The two spent some time in Scotland in 1853 where Millais became close to Ruskin's wife Effie Gray whom he later married. Millais was greatly influenced by the teaching of Ruskin and his idea of 'truth to nature'. Ruskin praised Millais's work comparing him with the important British painter, Turner. However Ruskin and Millais's friendship broke when the painter devoted himself to painting portraits of famous people (around 1880) and departed from the attention to detail and truth to nature. Millais was considered by Ruskin to have betrayed his principles.
Millais was elected as a Royal Academician in 1863 and elected the President of the Royal Academy in 1896, when already ill with cancer. When he died he was buried in St Paul's Cathedral next to Frederic Leighton.
Millais described his idea and his enthusiasm for the subject of 'The Black Brunswicker' in a letter to Effie, "My subject appears to me, too, most fortunate, and Russell (the war correspondent of The Times) thinks it first-rate… I have it all in my mind's eye and feel confident that it will be a prodigious success. The costume and incident are so powerful that I am astonished it has never been touched upon before. Russell was quite struck with it, and he is the best man for knowing the public taste. Nothing could be kinder than his interest, and he is to set about getting all the information that is required. "
Millais spent three months painting 'The Black Brunswicker'. Studies for the work exist both in the Lady Lever Art Gallery's archives and Tate Britain.
For models Millais used Charles Dicken's daughter Kate and a private soldier from the Life Guards. Propriety demanded each had to model separately using a lay figure to lean against. Millais wished to be historically accurate, but appears to be a compromise between the fashions of 1859 and 1815 (when waists were still kept high).
'The Black Brunswicker' was greatly admired when exhibited at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1860 and was bought by the famous dealer Ernest Gambart for £1050, the highest price Millais had yet received.