Millais was born in Southampton, but spent much of his youth on Jersey. The family moved to London in 1838 to encourage his great talent in drawing. In 1840, aged eleven, he entered the Royal Academy of Art schools, still their youngest ever student. Here he produced fine academic studies and won a number of prizes.
In 1848 Millais’s art underwent a dramatic transformation when he established the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood with a group of six other rebellious young artists including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt. This movement was formed in a spirit of opposition to the operatic illusionism that underpinned British academic painting and which characterises Millais’s own Pizarro of 1846. Pre-Raphaelite works, by contrast, revived medieval and early-Renaissance art and featured a deliberate naivety in composition and a psychological intensity which insisted on the quirks and specifics of human physiognomy.
Paintings like Isabella and Christ in the House of his Parents were widely perceived as perverse and even repulsive, making Millais the enfant terrible of the movement. However, the technical brilliance with which he rendered surface detail also marked him as the most precociously skilful artist of the group and his Pre-Raphaelite pictures, no matter how radical, were always accepted into the Academy exhibitions.