Mrs Clarissa Bischoffsheim was the wife of the prominent Dutch financier, Henry Louis Bischoffsheim, of the house of Bischoffsheim and Goldschmidt. Mrs Bischoffsheim, or 'Mrs Bisch' as she was sometimes affectionately known, was at the centre of a wealthy and cosmopolitan social circle which revolved around Bute House, the Bischoffsheim's home in South Audley Street (now the Egyptian Embassy). The Bischoffsheims collected art and owned a number of old master portraits, including examples by Reynolds and Gainsborough, and it is likely that Millais's portrait was contrived to emulate the grand manner of the eighteenth-century portraiture that the Bischoffsheim's owned. The stately pose and richly embroidered dress allude to the elaborate and ostentatious style of the eighteenth century, when gorgeous clothes were visual symbols of wealth and power. In fact, it was to the matter of fashion that many critics referred when reviewing the portrait at the Royal Academy exhibition. The Art Journal described the dress as a 'very rich and curious antique chintz gown' (Art Journal, 1873, p.169). The Saturday Review was less reserved and declared that the dress would be looked upon as 'a screaming horror in any quiet, tasteful drawing room' (Saturday Review, vol. 35, 7 June 1873, p.749).
Mrs Bischoffsheim is the first major portrait in which Millais adopts the three-quarter-length format. It is painted with the bold and fluent handling of paint and rich impasto characteristic of a new approach which he had adopted in the 1860s. This style, which broke from the high finish and minute detail of his earlier Pre-Raphaelite works, is comparable with French Impressionism which influenced English artists in this period. The Athenaeum claimed that the 'splendour and vigour' of Millais's technique were such that 'Velasquez would not be ashamed of the result' (quoted in Bennett, pp.51-2). The Spanish painter Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) was an influential figure among artists in the latter half of the nineteenth century and works by Whistler and Sargent were also likened to his manner. Mrs Bischoffsheim earned Millais high praise when it was exhibited at the Paris International Exhibition in 1878, at which Millais was one of few British artists to be awarded the Medal of Honour.
Peter Funnell, Malcolm Warner, Millais: Portraits, exhibition catalogue, National Portrait Gallery, London 1999, p.196, no.49, reproduced p.205 in colour, detail p.195.
Andrew Wilton, The Swagger Portrait: Grand Manner Portraiture in Britain from Van Dyck to Augustus John, 1630-1930, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1992, no.64, reproduced p.191 in colour.
Mary Bennett, Millais, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy, London 1967, p.11, no.81, reproduced pl.30.