Of all the pictures that Millais created, this was his favourite. The title and subtitle, 'Where the weary find repose', both come from Mendelssohn's part-song 'Ruhetal' from Sechs Lieder, Opus 59, no.5. Millais heard his brother William singing the song and felt it suited the picture perfectly.
The picture was conceived as a pendant to Spring (1856-9, The Lady Lever Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool). Whereas the earlier picture only hints at mortality, here the theme is made explicit. The nun on the left is digging a grave, which is positioned in such as way that the viewer appears to be in it alongside her. The second nun's rosary has a skull attached to it. In the background a coffin-shaped cloud - a harbinger of death, according to Scots legend - appears in the evening sky.
A nun features in an earlier drawing, St Agnes Eve of 1854 (private collection), and according to Millais' wife, Effie, 'It had long been Millais' intention to paint a picture with nuns in it' (J.G. Millais, The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais, vol.1, 1899, pp.328-30, quoted in Parris 1994, p.175). The idea for the picture occurred to him on honeymoon in Scotland in 1855. As Effie explains, 'On descending the hill by Loch Awe, from Inverary, he was extremely struck with its beauty, and the coachman told us that on one of the islands were the ruins of a monastery. We imagined to ourselves the beauty of the picturesque features of the Roman Catholic religion' (ibid., quoted in Parris 1994, p.175).
It was another three years before Millais began work on this painting. One October evening, he was so taken by the beauty of the sunset that he fetched a large canvas and set to work immediately. Following the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic of truth to nature, he painted the bulk of the picture, including the figures, in the open air. The setting - excluding the tombstones, but including the terrace, shrubs and the wall in the background, with poplars and oak trees behind it - was Effie's family's garden at Bowerswell, Perth. Effie recalled, 'The sunsets were lovely for two or three nights, and he dashed the work in, softening it afterwards in the house, making it, I thought, even less purple and gold than when he saw it in the sky. The effect lasted so short a time that he had to paint like lightning' (ibid., quoted in Parris, 1994, p.175). The grave and gravestones were painted some months later at Kinnoull old churchyard in Perth.
Leslie Parris, The Pre-Raphaelites, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1984, reprinted 1994, pp.175-6, reproduced p.176, in colour.
Elizabeth Prettejohn, The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites, London 2000, pp.250-1, reproduced p.250, in colour.