The Knight Errant is a large painting in which the figures are almost life size. When shown at the Royal Academy in 1870, it was accompanied by a text of Millais's own invention which was printed in the exhibition catalogue: 'The order of Knights errant was instituted to protect widows and orphans, and to succour maidens in distress.' The moonlit scene apparently depicts an act of medieval chivalry in which one such Knight errant, clad in armour (based on examples that Millais had seen in the Tower of London), is on the point of freeing a woman who has been stripped and tied to a tree. The tree, a Silver Birch, was commonly identified with the female gender in the nineteenth century and was sometimes referred to as 'Lady Birch'. Birch twigs were also traditionally used in flagellation. The woman's clothes lie on the ground to the left and her molesters, assumed to be robbers by one critic, are seen fleeing the scene in the top right corner of the canvas. There is blood on the Knight's sword and the torso of a dead man is visible behind him.
The Knight Errant was Millais's first and only attempt at painting the female nude and critical reviews of the painting focussed on his treatment of the unclothed woman. Millais's naturalistic approach was compared with the continental practice of idealising the nude and placing it in a classical setting, a model that was adhered to in England at this time by such artists as Frederick Leighton and Albert Moore. In fact, Millais was seeking to revive the early-Victorian tradition of the English nude that was begun by William Etty, an artist whom Millais admired and whose technique and use of rich colour Millais sought to emulate in this painting. Nevertheless, Millais's treatment of the nude figure and the ambiguity of the subject caused some consternation among critics who thought the woman too life-like. In June 1870, the Art Journal claimed that 'the manner is almost too real for the treatment of the nude' (quoted in Nead p.235) and assumptions were made about the woman's probable loose morals.
Recent x-ray photographs of the picture reveal that her head and torso were originally turned towards the Knight, establishing eye contact. Many poor reviews, coupled with the fact that the painting did not sell, compelled Millais to cut out the head and chest of the female figure from his canvas and re-work these parts to show the woman turning modestly away. The original section was later sewn into another canvas and exhibited in 1872 as The Martyr of The Solway (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool). Following Millais's revision, the Knight Errant was sold in 1874.
Lynda Nead, 'Representation, Sexuality and The Female Nude', Art History, vol.6, no.2, June 1983, pp.233-6.
Alison Smith, Exposed: The Victorian Nude, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2001, no.12, reproduced p.70, in colour.