The Black Brunswickers

LL 3643


The theme of ‘The Black Brunswickers’ is an imaginative incident depicting a historical moment. The Black Brunswickers were 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’, a name which derived from their distinctive death’s head hat badge and their apparent devotion to duty. The troops suffered severe losses at the battle of Quatre Bras at Waterloo in 1815. In a letter to his wife Effie, Millais described his idea and his enthusiasm for the subject: "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 Brunswickers’. Studies for the work exist both in the Lady Lever Art Gallery’s archives as well as in Tate Britain. Millais used Charles Dickens’s daughter, Kate, as the model for the girl and a private in the Life Guards for the soldier. Each had to model separately using a lay figure to lean against. Millais wished to be historically accurate in making the girl’s dress look quite antique (it is actually a compromise between the fashions of 1809 and 1815 when waists were still kept high). The intensity of emotions is well conveyed in the close encounter of the couple, the girl’s body attempting to obstruct the soldier from his task and prevent his destiny. The dark and enclosed space enhances the tragedy of the scene, and the work appeals both to viewers’ patriotism and sentimentality. The only distraction is perhaps the brilliant shine of the girl’s dress. The dog at the soldier’s feet also draws attention to the humanity of the subject. On the wall of the room is an engraving of a painting by JL David (1748 - 1825), which depicts Napoleon crossing the Alps. It serves as a reminder of Waterloo while also alluding to current events in 1860, when Napoleon III entered a war in Northern Italy in an attempt to expel the Austrians.