In summer 1846, Ford Madox Brown stayed in modest lodgings at Southend-on-Sea, accompanied by his three-year-old daughter Lucy. He had returned from a stay in Rome his wife had died on the journey home. Millie Smith was his landlady’s daughter aged about five, and apparently was a playmate for Lucy.
While Ford Madox Brown had been in Rome he had studied the work of The Nazarenes German artists who were enthusiastic about early Italian and German ‘primitive’ painting of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and who painted in a bright and precise manner which heralded subsequent Pre-Raphaelite concerns. Impressed by their work, by early Italian paintings and by portraits by Holbein that he saw in Basle, Madox Brown determined to abandon his ‘sombre Rembrandtesque style’, and paint brighter pictures.
At first glance this picture invites comparison with early Victorian primitive portraits that one might expect from a country painter. The disparities of scale between the table leg, chair back and over-large child’s head might suggest a lack of facility. This is belied by the accomplished rendering of the flower vase, tablecloth, flesh-painting and the startlingly strong directness of the sitter’s pose. It is a very small child seen at her own eye level.
Although Madox Brown has here abandoned extensive shadows and depth, the picture remains tonally rather dark. He probably used brown underpainting rather than the white ground of his subsequent works.