From Ophelia to Portraiture: The Art of John Everett Millais

John Everett Millais, a name synonymous with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, remains a pivotal figure in Victorian art, celebrated for his vivid portrayals and innovative techniques that diverged sharply from the artistic norms of his time.

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Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Early Life and Influences
  3. The Pre-Raphaelite Years
  4. Evolution into Portraiture
  5. Later Life and Legacy
  6. Conclusion
  7. Questions and Answers



Co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Millais championed a return to the abundant detail, intense colors, and complex compositions of Quattrocento Italian art. His works, from the deeply emotive “Ophelia” to the grand portraits of society figures, showcase a journey of evolving artistry that mirrored the dynamic shifts of the Victorian era.
Millais was not only a master of historical and literary themes but also adapted his style to become one of the foremost portraitists of his generation. This article explores his artistic trajectory—from his groundbreaking early works that challenged the conventions of the Royal Academy, through his affiliation with the Pre-Raphaelites, to his later achievements in portraiture and contributions as a member of the Royal Academy.


Early Life and Influences

Born on June 8, 1829, in Southampton, England, John Everett Millais was destined to leave an indelible mark on the art world. From a young age, Millais exhibited a profound aptitude for art, which his affluent and supportive family nurtured. His unique talent was recognized early, leading to his unprecedented admission to the prestigious Royal Academy of Arts at the tender age of eleven. This early start in a formal artistic environment was crucial, providing Millais with exposure to classical artworks and the stringent, academic style of painting that dominated the era.

At the Royal Academy, Millais trained under the guidance of esteemed artists who emphasized the importance of high finish and adherence to classical ideals. This period was characterized by rigorous training in drawing and anatomy, essential skills for any aspiring painter of the time. However, it was also during these formative years that Millais began to develop a sense of artistic unrest. The young artist found himself increasingly at odds with the conventional methodologies that stifled his creative expression. This tension between traditional education and personal artistic inclination was a defining feature of his early career.

The dissatisfaction with the academic norms sowed the seeds for what would later become the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB). Millais, along with contemporaries William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, founded the PRB in 1848 as a rebellion against the Royal Academy’s restrictive doctrines. The Brotherhood was named thus to signify their admiration for the art which predated the High Renaissance, particularly that of the Quattrocento period, which they believed possessed a spiritual and creative purity lost in later art.

Millais’ early works as part of the PRB are notable for their intense devotion to realism and detail, qualities that were directly inspired by his meticulous study of nature and medieval art. These pieces often featured elaborate compositions with bright, vivid colors and intricate detail, all rendered with an almost obsessive precision. Works such as “Lorenzo and Isabella” (1849) and “Christ in the House of His Parents” (1850) exemplify this period and highlight the young artist’s break from the norms of his time, both in technique and subject matter. “Christ in the House of His Parents” was particularly controversial, criticized for its unsentimental depiction of a sacred family, yet it underscored Millais’ commitment to the Brotherhood’s ideals of truth to nature and historical accuracy.

During these years, Millais also cultivated a profound understanding of color and light, influenced by the works of John Ruskin, the leading art critic of the time who later became a close associate and staunch defender of the Pre-Raphaelites. Ruskin’s principles, which emphasized the close observation of nature, greatly impacted Millais, encouraging him to experiment with texture and light, elements that became hallmarks of his style.


The Pre-Raphaelite Years

John Everett Millais’ involvement with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) marked one of the most dynamic and influential phases of his career. The PRB, founded in 1848 by Millais, William Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was formed in opposition to what they perceived as the formulaic and insincere approach encouraged by the Royal Academy of Arts. They sought a return to the rich detail, intense colors, and complex compositions that characterized the art of the early Renaissance—prior to Raphael—whom they believed had corrupted the purity of artistic expression with his classical formalism.

Millais’ work during this period was characterized by a fervent attention to naturalistic detail, which he believed brought greater emotional depth and authenticity to his paintings. His commitment to depicting nature with painstaking accuracy was evident in works such as “Ophelia” (1851-1852), where every flower, plant, and blade of grass was rendered with meticulous care. The painting, which depicts the tragic drowning of Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is noted not only for its emotional intensity but also for its hyper-realistic portrayal of a natural environment. Millais famously had his model lie in a bathtub full of water for hours to accurately capture the effects of floating in water, demonstrating his dedication to visual truth.

Ophelia by John Everett Millais
Ophelia by John Everett Millais. See it at Tate Gallery, London

Another seminal work from this period is “Christ in the House of His Parents” (1850), which was met with considerable controversy upon its unveiling. Critics, including Charles Dickens, lambasted the work for its “ugly” and “blasphemous” depiction of the Holy Family, critiquing its stark realism as inappropriate for such a sacred subject. Despite the uproar, the painting exemplified the PRB’s ethos of presenting religious and historical subjects with a new level of human realism and emotional depth, challenging the idealized representations commonly seen in Victorian religious art.

Christ in the House of His Parents by John Everett Millais
Christ in the House of His Parents by John Everett Millais. See it at Tate Gallery, London

During his Pre-Raphaelite phase, Millais also developed a close relationship with art critic John Ruskin, who became an ardent supporter of the Brotherhood. Ruskin’s theories on the importance of truth to nature resonated deeply with Millais, influencing many of his works during this time. However, this relationship eventually became complicated due to personal reasons—specifically, Millais’ growing closeness to Ruskin’s wife, Effie Gray, who later left Ruskin to marry Millais.

Despite the personal controversies, the 1850s were a period of substantial artistic growth for Millais. He continued to produce works that adhered to the Pre-Raphaelite principles, such as “The Blind Girl” (1856), which is celebrated for its rich color palette and its compassionate portrayal of disability. This painting, showing a blind girl experiencing the world through other senses amidst a vividly depicted landscape, highlights Millais’ skill in using color and detail to evoke deep emotional responses.

The Blind Girl by John Everett Millais
The Blind Girl by John Everett Millais. See it at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery


Evolution into Portraiture

As the 1860s approached, John Everett Millais began to transition away from the strict ideologies of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, moving towards a broader and more commercially viable approach to his art. This shift was marked by a significant evolution in his style and subject matter, most notably through his increasing engagement in portraiture, which would come to dominate much of his later career. This new phase reflected both a maturation of his artistic vision and a response to the evolving demands of Victorian society.

Millais’ prowess as a portraitist became widely recognized, attracting a clientele that included aristocrats, intellectuals, and prominent societal figures. His ability to capture the essence and character of his subjects without sacrificing the aesthetic quality of his work earned him critical acclaim and financial success. Notable portraits from this period include “Effie Gray” (1853), “The Order of Release” (1853), featuring his wife and muse, Effie, and “John Ruskin” (1854), which, despite its unfinished status, is considered one of his most striking works due to its intense realism and psychological depth.

Effie Gray by John Everett Millais
Effie Gray by John Everett Millais


Order of Release by John Everett Millais
Order of Release by John Everett Millais. See it at Tate Gallery, London


One of Millais’ most significant contributions to portrait art was his ability to infuse traditional portraiture with a sense of immediacy and emotional depth. His technique evolved to employ looser brush strokes and richer color palettes, a departure from the minute detail of his earlier Pre-Raphaelite works. This approach not only highlighted his subjects’ physical characteristics but also their psychological nuances, making each portrait a complex study of individual personality.

For example, “The Two Princes Edward and Richard in the Tower” (1878), while historical in theme, is rendered with a poignant realism that captures the vulnerability and tragic fate of the young royals. This painting exemplifies how Millais blended historical portraiture with emotional storytelling, using his brush to explore themes of innocence, betrayal, and the harsh realities of power.

The Two Princes Edward and Richard in the Tower by John Everett Millais
The Two Princes Edward and Richard in the Tower by John Everett Millais

Furthermore, Millais’ shift towards portraiture coincided with his growing involvement in the Royal Academy, where he served as President from 1896 until his death in 1896. His role at the Academy allowed him to influence the direction of British art, advocating for a balance between classical traditions and the evolving tastes of the contemporary art scene.


Later Life and Legacy

In the later years of his career, John Everett Millais continued to evolve and adapt, securing his reputation as a versatile and influential figure in British art. After his extensive period focusing on portraiture, Millais’ later works often returned to broader themes, including landscapes and genre scenes, which reflected his ongoing interest in capturing the essence of British life and nature.

During this time, Millais was honored with numerous accolades, reflecting his prominent status within the art community. In 1885, he was made a baronet, becoming Sir John Everett Millais, the first artist to be honored with a hereditary title. This recognition was not only a personal triumph but also a signal of the rising status of artists within the Victorian social hierarchy.

Millais’ approach to painting in his later years showed a remarkable fluidity in style, moving away from the intense detail of his Pre-Raphaelite works to embrace a looser, more impressionistic approach. This can be seen in paintings like “Bubbles” (1886), originally created as a soap advertisement, which became one of his most recognized works, epitomizing the commercial success many Victorian artists aspired to achieve. The painting features a young boy blowing bubbles, capturing the transient moments of childhood with a poignant clarity that resonated deeply with the Victorian public.

Bubbles by John Everett Millais
Bubbles by John Everett Millais

His landscape paintings, such as “Chill October” (1870), also demonstrate Millais’ mastery in portraying the natural environment, imbued with a sense of atmospheric moodiness that conveys the emotional undertones of the changing seasons. These works not only illustrate his technical prowess but also his ability to evoke a narrative through landscape alone, a testament to his broad artistic capabilities.

Chill October by John Everett Millais
Chill October by John Everett Millais

Millais’ contributions extended beyond his artworks. As President of the Royal Academy, he played a crucial role in shaping the direction of British art education and policy. His tenure at the Academy was marked by efforts to modernize and expand the institution’s influence, ensuring that it remained a central force in the cultural life of Britain.

Millais died in 1896, leaving behind a legacy that profoundly influenced not only the Pre-Raphaelite movement but also the broader scope of British art. His career was characterized by a constant evolution, reflecting the changes in British society and art across the second half of the 19th century. Today, Millais is remembered not just for his artistic innovations but also for his role in elevating the status of the artist within society and for his contributions to art education.



John Everett Millais’ artistic journey—from a precocious Royal Academy student to a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and eventually, a celebrated portraitist and influential President of the Royal Academy—mirrors the broader narrative of Victorian art itself. His career encapsulated the tensions between tradition and innovation, capturing the dynamic shifts in artistic expression during the 19th century.

Millais’ early works, with their radical departure from the academic norms of the day, challenged the aesthetic conventions and narrative structures of Victorian art. His involvement with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was instrumental in pioneering a new visual language that emphasized emotional depth and meticulous attention to detail, setting the stage for the modern art movements that would follow.

As he matured, Millais’ adaptation to the changing tastes and economic realities of his time demonstrated his remarkable versatility. His portraits and later works reflect a mastery of both subject and medium, showcasing his ability to resonate with both public and critical acclaim. These pieces remain significant for their technical proficiency and emotional resonance, offering insights into the complexities of Victorian society.

Moreover, Millais’ legacy extends beyond his paintings. As an influential figure in the Royal Academy, he played a key role in shaping the future of art education in Britain, advocating for reforms that broadened the scope of artistic training and elevated the status of the artist in society. His honors, including his baronetcy, underscored the rising prestige of artists in the late Victorian era.

In summary, John Everett Millais was not just a painter; he was a pivotal figure in the transition of art from the rigid conventions of the early 19th century to a more expressive and diverse aesthetic that characterized the fin-de-siècle. His works continue to captivate audiences, serving as enduring testaments to his artistic genius and his impact on the course of British art history.


Questions and Answers

What made John Everett Millais a significant figure in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood?
Millais was not only a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood but also one of its most influential artists. His works exemplified the Brotherhood’s core principles of fidelity to nature, meticulous detail, and vibrant color. His painting “Ophelia” is one of the most celebrated examples of Pre-Raphaelite art, showcasing these ideals through its intense emotional expression and naturalistic precision.

How did Millais’ style change over the course of his career?
Initially, Millais’ style was heavily detailed, focusing on historical accuracy and complex compositions, as seen in his early Pre-Raphaelite works. Over time, his style evolved towards a broader, more commercial approach, particularly in his portraiture, which became known for its elegant depiction of Victorian society. In his later years, he adopted a looser brushwork and explored other genres, including landscapes and genre scenes, demonstrating a remarkable flexibility in style and subject matter.

What were some of the controversies associated with Millais’ work?
Millais faced significant controversy, particularly with his painting “Christ in the House of His Parents,” which was criticized for its unconventional and realistic depiction of the Holy Family. The painting was deemed blasphemous by many critics of the time, including Charles Dickens, who found its portrayal of a very human Holy Family disturbing.

How did Millais contribute to the art community beyond his paintings?
Beyond his artistic contributions, Millais played a significant role in art education and policy as the President of the Royal Academy. He was instrumental in modernizing the Academy and expanding its role in the broader cultural and educational landscapes of Britain. His advocacy for artists and art education helped elevate the status of the artist in society.

Why is Millais’ work still relevant today?
Millais’ work remains relevant due to its profound impact on the development of modern art. His ability to blend intense realism with rich emotional depth opened new avenues for artistic expression. His works not only provide insight into Victorian society but also continue to influence contemporary artists and captivate audiences with their beauty and complexity.