Spring (Apple Blossoms) – AND – Autumn Leaves by John Everett Millais

The artist behind both these paintings – John Everett Millais – was a child art prodigy, and in his late teens co-founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The PRB was founded at his family home in London – [then] 83 Gower Street, Bloomsbury, London. I worked nearby at 82 Gower Street for about 18 months, and many times passed by the English Heritage blue plaque that marks the occasion – always wanting to open that door and step inside.

I want to look today at two (arguably) sister paintings.

Spring (Apple Blossoms) [1859] by John Everett Millais (English artist, lived 1829–1896). Lady Lever Art Gallery. 113 x 176.3 cm or 44.5 x 69.5 inches.

Young women having a picnic on a warm spring day. They’ve been gathering flowers and are now relaxing on the grass near an orchard. Idyllic, surely? And yet the young women are looking away from each other, contemplatively. Surely there’s something unusual going on here? It’s clearly more than just a pretty picture. Most obviously a sharp scythe blade hangs over the last – apparently unaware – girl. Death the Grim Reaper?

Closer inspection shows much of what is in the picture symbolises the unstoppable passage of time. Note the delicate blossoms on the trees – some just beginning to open, others in full bloom. The seasons move relentlessly on.

The fresh bowls of curds and whey – only fresh for a short while. We can see just picked wild flowers. Youth and beauty, like flowers, will soon fade. Life itself is fleeting and transient and must be enjoyed while it lasts.

Millais was married to Effie Gray (whom had previously been married to the writer and art critic John Ruskin). Some of the group in the first painting – and all of those in the second – are modelled by Millais’s sisters-in-law (Effie’s sisters).

Three years earlier (1856) Millais had explored a related theme in Autumn Leaves (1856). Manchester Art Gallery. 104.3 x W 74 cm or 41 x 29 inches. This is one of my favourite Pre-Raphaelite pictures – I’ve loved it since a child – for it’s haunting beauty, colours and fabulous twilight.

According to fellow artist Holman Hunt, four years prior to painting Autumn Leaves, Millais said:

“Is there any sensation more delicious then that awakened by the odour of burning leaves? To me nothing brings back sweeter memories of days that are gone ..”

A simple and unpretentious scene – four girls, modelled by his wife Effie’s sisters Alice (holding the basket), Sophie, Matilda and Isabella – piling up leaves to be burned.

The painting was much admired, the art world celebrated Millais’s technical ability, handling of colour and twilight tones. And yet the artist himself was disappointed that almost everybody saw it as ‘.. a simple rustic episode [about] effect and colour.’ He had intended major themes of transience, ageing and death – hence – youth and innocence – dead leaves, smoke and sunlight and fading light. Perhaps that’s why he had another go 4 years later, with Spring (Apple Blossoms).

I wonder if the critics saw something that Millais himself was not prepared to see. That he was doing something new – that didn’t need additional justification. Most Victorian viewers would have been expecting a narrative, a story. Whereas the artist – in both paintings – is mostly evoking a mood. He is in poetry-mode, rather than storyteller-mode. There are hints in these two pictures of what we will later call Aestheticism – “art for art’s sake”. A subject for a future post.


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