Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Pre-Raphaelite Love Triangle


Yesterday, the Delaware Art Museum announced the launch of its online collections website. Now, over 1000 examples of its trove of Golden Age Illustration and Pre-Raphaelite paintings is available for anyone in the world to view and study.

Each painting has a story. Let me tell you one.

"The Waterfall" by John Everett Millais, 1853, oil, 11x19 inches

John Everett Millais painted this careful study of a woman beside a stream during a painting trip to Scotland. The woman is Effie (Euphemia) Gray, the wife of John Ruskin. Ruskin was a famous art critic who championed the idea of painting nature in all of its abundant detail, and he was an artistic mentor to Millais. 

During the long days that it would have taken to paint this picture, one can imagine John and Effie getting to know each other. Effie was unhappy in her own marriage to Mr. Ruskin, in part because of a very awkward situation that unfolded on the Ruskin's wedding night. 

Until his marriage, Ruskin's idea of women's bodies had derived from his encounters with classical statues and paintings. Confronted by the reality of Effie's nude body on the wedding night, he was shocked and dismayed. 

No one knows for sure what exactly blew his mind: it might have been either the pubic hair or the menstrual blood. Some have argued recently that the sensual reality of woman's body conflicted with Ruskin's mental image of an idealized young female. The way Ruskin put it later at the annulment proceedings: "It may be thought strange that I could abstain from a woman who to most people was so attractive. But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it."

Millais and Effie had fallen in love, but this led to a big problem, because the whole point of the Scotland trip was for Millais to paint a standing portrait of Ruskin in a natural setting. Having established the natural backdrop, Millais returned to London, where Ruskin posed for him in the studio. Millais called it "the most hateful task I have ever had to perform." 

After the portrait was completed, Ruskin and Millais broke off relations, and Ruskin's marriage was on the rocks. Effie, still a virgin, sued for annulment.

Ruskin may have been turned off by Effie, but Millais wasn't. They married in 1854 and had eight children together.


This spring, a film dramatization called "Effie" will be released. The script by Emma Thompson promises to explore the fraught relationship between Gray, Ruskin, and Millais. (Thanks, Dana)

14 comments:

Shaun Stipick said...

How exciting!

I am lucky enough to live close enough to this museum(worked at the Brandywine as well) to have visited at least 50 or so times (no exaggeration). I am a huge fan of the illustration wing and have spent many days walking down (or over) from the museum to admire Pyle's old studio and pretend all the way that I inhabit the shoes of one of his intrepid students all the way. I'm a child at heart. So why should I tell you all this?

All this time and I completely missed the story asscosiated with the painting. How? It's just too epic and apropos for the time the piece was painted. While terrible in so many ways, it seems to have a happy ending with the artist winning in the end.

Thanks for sharing this.

theartistsday said...

We see quite a number of Millais work in the UK but of course I've never seen this one. With his work I feel he's more interested in the surroundings than the figure. Look how lovingly he paints the rocks. But of course falling in love with the model gave him an incentive to paint every detail with special attention.

NJL said...

theartistsday - I was just thinking that! The figure looks unfinished almost given the loving detail lavished upon the rocks in the center. Given the story James told us, maybe he was over-compensating for his growing interest in the woman. :D

jeff jordan said...

Millais' Ophelia seems like that, too. Still one of my favorite paintings I've never seen........

John Kaay said...

What a great story. Thanks!

Belinda said...

I'm just so happy for Millais and Effie to have been able to marry, and that one good thing came of her humiliating, hurtful rejection...her marriage to someone who loved her. Feeling the joy for them as if it was recent. Thank you for the story...I shall see things so differently as I look at the paintings.

Janet Oliver said...

This may be one of my favorite stories from art history. My professor told it with such relish.

Dana Brooks said...

Scheduled for a May 2014 release: 'Effie'.
The writer is Emma Thompson.

Unknown said...

Love your blog Jim, and all your work.
The story regarding Ruskin is the popular one, but there are other accounts of what may have happened : http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/mar/29/ruskin-effie-marriage-inconvenience-brownell

Tom Hart said...

The article mentioned by Unknown above is well worth a read. I find it a very credible scenario compared to the popular version.

Celeste Bergin said...

wow---great article and thanks to Unknown above for the link too

Unknown said...

You're welcome.
Ruskin's house (Brantwood) in the Lake District is a wonderful visit if you're ever in that neck of the woods.
(The Great Unknown).

Debi Hammack said...

Long time fan of your blog! Great information as always. The BBC made a good show on the Pre-Raphaelites (titled Desperate Romantics) and it did cover this whole relationship. I'm sure the show got some of the history wrong (artistic license and all), but it was still very entertaining.

Chris Dunn said...

It's wonderful to hear Emma Thompson has seized upon the Ruskin, Effie and Millais love triangle. I'm really looking forward to watching it. Thanks for making me aware of the forthcoming drama!