This early work, painted when Millais had just finished his training at the Royal Academy Schools, records a strange incident from Millais's early career, of which there is no record in any of the published biographies or catalogues of the artist and his work. However, an unattributed inscription on the original backing to the picture (now lost) described the occasion which Millais depicted here as follows: 'The painting represents an incident in Millais's own life when he was sent for by people unknown to him, but who knew him to be a young artist, to draw a portrait of a girl in her coffin before her burial. The scene moved him so much that when he got home he made this sketch showing himself being asked to draw the girl's portrait'.
The composition is arranged so that the spectator of the painting becomes a witness to Millais's visit to the dead girl. The artist is seen from behind, hat in hand as a mark of respect and apparently communicating with a woman whom, it is to be assumed, is the mother of the dead girl. The coffin is pushed into the foreground, inviting the spectator to look from the same angle which Millais himself adopted in order to draw the girl. The motif of a dead girl laid out on an oblique, horizontal plane is comparable with Millais's later treatment of female death in Ophelia (Tate N01506). Millais's painting also serves as a visual record of the social rituals of death in early-Victorian England ; the white cloth covering the coffin is suggestive of innocence and was the colour traditionally used at the burials of children. Artists were often called upon to record the likeness of babies and children who had died prematurely through illness. The Liverpool Pre-Raphaelite artist, William Windus painted a portrait of his first son after he died aged seven months (Tate N04885). The loose handling of the paint in The Artist Attending the Mourning of a Young Girl can be attributed to the fact that it is apparently a 'sketch' from memory, but it may also be compared with the freer brushwork which characterises Millais's early paintings before he came under the influence of Pre-Raphaelitism. An early self-portrait by Millais, also painted on board and dated 1847 (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), is comparable to the manner in which Millais has represented himself in this work. Millais later gave this painting to his friend and fellow Pre-Raphaelite, Charles Allston Collins (1828-1973), whom he had met in the mid-1840s when they were both students at the Royal Academy Schools.
Peter Funnell, Malcolm Warner, Millais: Portraits, exhibition catalogue, National Portrait Gallery, London 1999, self-portrait reproduced in colour p.43.
Peter C. Jupp and Clare Gittings (eds), Death in England: An Illustrated History, Manchester 1999.