Millais was born in Southampton, the son of John William Millais, a wealthy gentleman from an old Jersey family. His mother's family were prosperous saddlers. Considered a child prodigy, he came to London in 1838. He was sent to Sass's Art School, and won a silver medal at the Society of Arts at the age of nine. In 1840 he was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools as their youngest ever student, winning a silver medal in 1843 for drawing from the antique, and a gold medal in 1847 for his painting The Tribe of Benjamin Seizing the Daughters of Shiloh. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1846, with Pizarro Seizing the Inca of Peru (Victoria and Albert Museum, London).
At the Royal Academy he became friendly with fellow student William Holman Hunt, and contributed with Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti to the Cyclographic Society. In 1848 the three helped form the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. His first Pre-Raphaelite painting was Isabella (1848-9, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), which he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1849. His entry for the following year, Christ in the House of His Parents ('The Carpenter's Shop') (1849-50, Tate Gallery N03584), was received unfavourably.
In 1855 he married Effie Chalmers, Ruskin's former wife, with whom he had fallen in love while he was holidaying with the Ruskins in Scotland. The couple settled in Perth, where he painted Autumn Leaves (1855-6, City of Manchester Art Galleries).
Between 1855 and 1864 Millais made illustrations for numerous publications, including the Moxon edition of Tennyson's poems (1857), the magazine Once a Week (1859 onwards) and several novels by Trollope. He moved back to London in 1861, where he achieved popular success as a painter of child subjects such as Bubbles (1886, A. & F. Pears Ltd.), which became famous as an advertisement for Pears soap. Also popular were his paintings of beautiful young women, such as Stella (1868, Manchester City Art Gallery). He built up a practice as a portraitist from the early 1870s, his sitters including Thomas Carlyle (1877), Lillie Langtry (1878), Gladstone (1879 and 1885), Disraeli (1881) and Tennyson (1881).
Millais was made an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1853, and a full member in 1863. In 1885 he was created a baronet and in 1896 was elected President of the Royal Academy, but died shortly thereafter in London. He is buried in St Paul's Cathedral.
John Guille Millais, The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais, 2 volumes, London 1899
Leslie Parris (ed.), The Pre-Raphaelites, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1984, reprinted 1994
Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Baronet, (UK: MIL-ay, US: mil-AY; 8 June 1829 – 13 August 1896) was an English painter and illustrator who was one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He was a child prodigy who, aged eleven, became the youngest student to enter the Royal Academy Schools. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded at his family home in London, at 83 Gower Street (now number 7). Millais became the most famous exponent of the style, his painting Christ in the House of His Parents (1850) generating considerable controversy, and painting perhaps the embodiment of the school, Ophelia, in 1850–51.
By the mid-1850s, Millais was moving away from the Pre-Raphaelite style to develop a new form of realism in his art. His later works were enormously successful, making Millais one of the wealthiest artists of his day, but some former admirers including William Morris saw this as a sell-out (Millais notoriously allowed one of his paintings to be used for a sentimental soap advertisement). While these and early 20th-century critics, reading art through the lens of Modernism, viewed much of his later production as wanting, this perspective has changed in recent decades, as his later works have come to be seen in the context of wider changes and advanced tendencies in the broader late nineteenth-century art world, and can now be seen as predictive of the art world of the present.
Millais's personal life has also played a significant role in his reputation. His wife Effie was formerly married to the critic John Ruskin, who had supported Millais's early work. The annulment of the marriage and her wedding to Millais have sometimes been linked to his change of style, but she became a powerful promoter of his work and they worked in concert to secure commissions and expand their social and intellectual circles.
Artist as subject
Film and audio
Tate EtcThe curator of RHS Garden Wisley treads the undergrowth of Millais’s autumnal painting
Tate EtcFrom laden apple trees to yellowing leaves, autumn – ‘the painter's season’ – has inspired generations of aritsts and writers
Look CloserExplore Millais's iconic painting, Ophelia, looking at the subject, materials, techniques and conservation
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Art TermGroup of British artists founded in 1975 who aimed to revive the painting of figure subjects in idyllic rural settings
Art TermIn its specific sense realism refers to a mid nineteenth century artistic movement characterised by subjects painted from everyday life …
Art TermThe Pre-Raphaelites were a secret society of young artists (and one writer), founded in London in 1848. They were opposed …
Tate PapersThis issue explores how drawing has been used by artists to record and represent unconscious or invisible forces that go …
Tate EtcIn an essay originally published in issue 3 of Tate Etc. we take a look at John Everett Millais's Ophelia …
Tate PapersThis article examines the sexual imagery of particular paintings by the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais. It argues that criticism …