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About the artwork

Referring to a conversation with The Times’ war correspondent, William Howard Russell, Millais described his inspiration for ‘The Black Brunswicker’ in a letter to his wife, Effie:

‘My subject appears to me, too, most fortunate, and Russell thinks it first-rate. It is connected with the Brunswick Cavalry at Waterloo...They were nearly annihilated but performed prodigies of valour... 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.’

This quote reveals much about the artist’s approach to painting: his attention to detail and enthusiasm for gathering as much background material as he could; his commitment to contemporaneity in depicting a theme that was very much of its time; his concern to preserve his unrivalled  popularity as an artist in Victorian Britain. 

John Everett Millais was a child prodigy, born in Southampton to a wealthy family who moved to London to enable the boy’s talent to flourish.  At the age of eleven, he enrolled at the Royal Academy where he met the painters Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  The three artists founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848 in an effort to promote a new style of art that was less reliant on the ideals of classicism that dominated the Academy’s teaching at that time.  Their name refers to their preference for mediaeval art that preceded the Renaissance artist Raphael.

The high degree of realism in his paintings and the broad appeal of his subject matter ensured Millais’ immediate success. He received praise and support from the critic John Ruskin whose writing had a great influence on the young artist, particularly his teachings on truth to nature.  Following the lead of Holman Hunt’s ‘Awakening Conscience’ 1853 Millais turned from medievalism to subjects of contemporary significance.

The Black Brunswickers were a volunteer troop raised by Frederick William, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel in 1809 to fight in the Napoleonic Wars.  The regiment, consisting of the German gentry, wore a distinctive black uniform.  They were known as the ‘Death or Glory’, a name derived from the silver death’s head badge on their helmet, their fearsome reputation and devotion to duty. They suffered severe losses at the battle of Quatre Bras at Waterloo in 1815 and their exploits fired the imagination of the British public.

Millais chose to depict a young Brunswicker bidding a reluctant farewell to his lover, who puts herself between the soldier and the door he attempts to open.  The intensity of their emotions is conveyed through their physical proximity and the opposing force of their bodies pressed together in the shallow space of the scene. Studies for the work exist in various collections that show variations on the figures’ poses before he decided on the present composition.  The models were a private from the Life Guards and Charles Dickens’ daughter, Kate though a Victorian sense of decorum forbade them ever posing together!  The models never met and they were sketched separately using a wooden figure as support.

Various domestic details such as the William Morris wallpaper, framed print and dog with matching bow to its owner, suggest that this is the woman’s home, and her pearl-white satin dress implies that she was preparing for a ball when her lover was recalled by his regiment. The print, depicting David’s famous image of Napoleon is not intended as an indication of the woman’s support for the French, but as a means of contextualising the scene for the viewer and reinforcing the reason for the soldier’s departure.

The painting took Millais three years to complete and its similarity in subject matter to an earlier painting, ‘A Hugueno’t 1852, has been widely interpreted as the artist’s attempt to repeat its success during a relatively quiet spell in his career.  The work was bought for the highest price Millais had ever received from a dealer at 100 guineas and it continued to earn him money when it was engraved for reproduction as a print in 1864.  He also made two watercolour copies of the painting. William Hesketh Lever, a great admirer of Millais, bought the work for his private collection in 1898.