On loan to: National Gallery (London, UK)
Exhibition: Jan van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites
When it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1851 this picture was accompanied by the following lines from Tennyson's Mariana (1830):
She only said, 'My life is dreary,
He cometh not,' she said;
She said, 'I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!'
Tennyson's poem was inspired by the character of Mariana in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. Rejected by her fiancé, Angelo, after her dowry was lost in a shipwreck, she leads a lonely existence in a moated grange. She is still in love with Angelo - now Deputy to the Duke of Vienna - and longs to be reunited with him.
In the picture the autumn leaves scattered on the ground mark the passage of time. Mariana has been working at some embroidery and pauses to stretch her back. Her longing for Angelo is suggested by her pose and the needle thrust fiercely into her embroidery. The stained-glass windows in front of her show the Annunciation, contrasting the Virgin's fulfilment with Mariana's frustration and longing. Millais copied the scene from the window of the Chapel of Merton College, Oxford. However, the heraldic design appears to have been his own invention. The motto 'In coelo quies' means 'In Heaven there is rest' and clearly refers to Mariana's desire to be dead. The snowdrop symbolises 'consolation' and is also the birthday flower for 20 January, St Agnes' Eve, when young girls put herbs in their shoes and pray to St Agnes to send them a vision of their future husband. It may also refer indirectly to John Keats's narrative
poem The Eve of St Agnes, which, like Tennyson's Mariana, is also concerned with the theme of yearning. The mouse in the right foreground is Tennyson's mouse that 'Behind the mouldering wainscot shriek'd, | Or from the crevice peer'd about'. The miniature altar in the background, decorated with a small triptych
, and a silver casket, may refer to Tennyson's other poem on the same theme, Mariana in the South, in which Mariana prays desperately to the Virgin Mary.
Millais may have intended the picture to complement Holman Hunt's Claudio and Isabella (1850, Tate N03447), a scene also taken from Measure for Measure. But as a subject from Tennyson the picture acquired a certain topicality, since Tennyson was made Poet Laureate in November 1850.
Leslie Parris (ed.), The Pre-Raphaelites, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1984, reprinted 1994, no.35, pp.89-90, reproduced p.90.
Elisabeth Prettejohn, The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites, London 2000, pp.11-13, reproduced p.10, in colour.
Technique and condition
The painting is on a mahogany panel made of a single, unbevelled piece of wood with the grain running vertically. There is a layer of mushroom brown paint all over the back with a Winsor and Newton label over it. The support is in excellent condition.
It is primed with a thick, white ground, almost certainly applied by the colourman. It is not known whether Millais used the recorded pre-Raphaelite technique of applying a second ground before starting to paint and working wet-into-wet. Many cross-sections would be needed to establish this but the edges of the painting are in such good condition that we could not justify taking samples of this nature. The ground is very securely attached to the support. There are long, very fine, horizontal cracks in the ground and paint over most of the composition; they are spaced between 5 and 30mm apart, their edges are flat and there is no sign of flaking.
Infra-red photography reveals confident linear drawing in graphite or fine crayon in Mariana's torso and arms. Sketchier lines indicate the back of her skirt, the window embrasure, the position of the tablecloth in front of her and the stool behind her, which originally was conceived at a more foreshortened angle to the viewer. None of these lines is easily visible with the unaided eye.
The painting is outstandingly well preserved. Apart from the horizontal cracks, which are visible only in strong reflected light, and some very fine, barely distinguishable drying cracks in the dark curtain near the top right corner, the paint surface is virtually unblemished by age. A short line of darkened paint on the top edge at the right corner may have been applied to cover abrasion from the frame but it is possible that the artist did it.
The technique of painting is varied. In most areas - the dark background, green foliage, flesh tones, shadows of the blue dress and the white cloth in shadow - the paint is semi-opaque and applied thinly in little hatches and dabs with fine brushes, so as to exploit the reflective properties of the white ground. In other parts - the stained glass windows, red seat and the leather wall hanging - the paint is thick and glutinous-looking and was applied in blobs of various sizes. Either it was fully thixotropic or it was applied while the painting was placed horizontally face up because it has not run at all. Analysis with GCMS ( K.J.van der Berg, FOM Institute, Amsterdam, 1999) of red paint from the stained glass window at the left edge shows that the medium is a fusion of copal resin and oil. On the other hand a sample of green from the leather wall hanging (top edge) revealed heat-bodied linseed oil with no additives. It looks as if Millais used two different blue pigments for the dress; the shadowed parts look like Prussian blue while the highlit area resembles ultramarine. The highlit blue looks much built up.
The varnish is a natural resin applied fairly thinly. It may be the original, as there are no signs that the painting has been cleaned. As it had sunk a little in the dress and parts of the dark background, a fresh coat of dammar resin in white spirit and Shellsol A was brushed on top after the painting was acquired by the Tate and had been surface cleaned with Stoddard Solvent. When dry, the surface was polished with a soft brush to reduce the glossiness a little.
Rica Jones, (with additional information from Dr Joyce Townsend and Dr Klaas Jan van der Berg)
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