Room 3: Aestheticism

Sir John Everett Millais, Bt, ‘The Vale of Rest’ 1858–9
Sir John Everett Millais, Bt
The Vale of Rest 1858–9

Following the struggles and eventual acceptance of Pre-Raphaelitism, Millais dramatically shifted gear in the mid-1850s to pursue a new manner. The pictures in this room reject both the need for literal subjects and the overall clarity and precision of Pre-Raphaelite landscape painting, establishing themes that would concern Millais in his art for the remainder of his career. Retrospectively, such works appear to have heralded the inception of British Aestheticism’s ideal of Art for Art’s sake, anticipating the subsequent work of Rossetti, Whistler, and Albert Moore.

Such Aesthetic pictures often lack an easily recognisable subject and function as portraits, anonymous scenes of abstracted female beauty in a Japanese, classical or even contemporary style, or pictures that seem to have a story but remain ambiguous to viewers searching for a precise meaning. A generally sensuous, opulent and sometimes historically ambiguous style associated with Aestheticism finds its way into many of Millais’s portraits and later landscapes, but subject pictures of this period reveal Millais’s brand of Aestheticism was less concerned with a cultish concept of androgynous beauty, or trends in furnishings or crockery, than in the evocation of mood, poetic meaning and modernised female beauty.

Full on this casement shone the wintry moon

Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;
Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;
Loosens her fragrant bodice; by degrees
Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees:
Half-hidden, like a mermaid in seaweed,
Pensive awhile she dreams awake, and sees
In fancy fair St Agnes in her bed,
But dares not look behind, or all the charm is fled.

Extracts from The Eve of St Agnes, John Keats, 1819. Millais was inspired by these lines. Millais’s painting The Eve of St Agnes was done at Knole Park, a stately home in Kent, with his wife Effie as the model. John Everett Millais Eve of St Agnes 1863, lent by The Royal Collection