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Sir John Everett Millais, 1829 - 1896

A Dream of the Past: Sir Isumbras at the Ford by John Everett Millais

About the artist

John Everett Millais was born in Southampton to a wealthy Jersey family. Millais’s talent for drawing led his family to move to London to further their son’s artistic career. After training in the Sass’s School in London he enrolled at the Royal Academy at the age of 11. 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 High Victorian art which prevailed at the Academy. They found that the greatly stylised and idealistic manner of painters such as Frederic Leighton had deprived art of a true spirit and its capacity to move spectators.

In their efforts to promote a new type of art, less reliant on classicism and idealism, the three painters, together with others, founded the  Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. The name of the movement refers to their artistic influences coming from art made before the Renaissance artist Raphael (1483-1520), namely medieval art.

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’ (held at the  Walker Art Gallery). The movement was in reality only a loose formation, which did not last more than a few years, despite the fact that the founding members and artists continued to paint in a similar manner even after they had resigned and departed from a common goal.

Millais met John Ruskin, the British art critic who supported the cause of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1851. The two men 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 truth to nature dogma.

Ruskin praised Millais’s work comparing him with the other important British painter Turner. However Ruskin and Millais’s friendship broke up when the painter devoted himself to painting portraits of famous people (around 1880), an art form that Ruskin considered a sell-out of Millais’s talents.

Millais was elected a Royal Acedemician in 1863 and a 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.


The following Millais paintings from our collections are available to view online: