In the summer of 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, the subject of this painting, was his landlady’s daughter aged about five, and was a playmate for Lucy.
While 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 14th and 15th centuries. They painted in a bright and precise manner which heralded subsequent Pre-Raphaelite concerns. Impressed by their work and by the early Italian paintings and portraits by Holbein that he saw in Basle, Brown determined to abandon his ‘sombre Rembrandtesque style’ and paint brighter pictures.
At first glance this picture invites comparison with the early Victorian primitive portraits that might be more associated with a country painter. The disparities of scale between the table leg, chair back and over-large child’s head could suggest a lack of skill or inexperience. There is, however, an accomplished rendering of the flower vase, tablecloth, flesh-painting and the startlingly strong directness of the sitter’s pose. Victorian child portraiture tended to be sweet and sentimental, but Brown painted Millie with remarkable naturalness and directness. It is a painting of a very small child seen at her own eye level.
Although 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.