Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Unspoken Stories Behind Famous Paintings

I recently came across a very interesting blog post by James Gurney. (author and illustrator of the Dinatopia books) If you love art and aren't following his blog, then I highly recommend that you do. He is always posting interesting historical facts about past artists as well as helpful information regarding techniques. This particular post was about the artist John Everett Millais and his friendship with John Ruskin (a famous art critic,author and artist at that time)

We all know that art is a form of storytelling, but we forget that there are sometimes even more interesting stories hidden behind that artwork.

Case in point...

"The Waterfall" by John Everett Millais, 1853, oil

John Everett Millais painted this careful study of a woman beside a stream during a painting trip to Scotland. The woman is Effie (Euphemia) Gray, the wife of John Ruskin.

During the long days that it would have taken to paint this picture, one can imagine John and Effie getting to know each other. Effie was unhappy in her own marriage to Mr. Ruskin, in part because of a very awkward situation that unfolded on the Ruskin's wedding night. 

Until his marriage, Ruskin's idea of women's bodies had derived from his encounters with classical statues and paintings. Confronted by the reality of Effie's nude body on the wedding night, he was shocked and dismayed. 

No one knows for sure what exactly blew his mind: it might have been either the pubic hair or the menstrual blood. Some have argued recently that the sensual reality of woman's body conflicted with Ruskin's mental image of an idealized young female. Others have argued that Ruskin was a pedophile as he later had relationships with girls very much his junior.  (though many believe that he never had any sexual relations within his lifetime) The way Ruskin put it later at the annulment proceedings: "It may be thought strange that I could abstain from a woman who to most people was so attractive. But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it."
Millais and Effie had fallen in love, but this led to a big problem, because the whole point of the Scotland trip was for Millais to paint a standing portrait of Ruskin in a natural setting. Having established the natural backdrop, Millais returned to London, where Ruskin posed for him in the studio. Millais called it "the most hateful task I have ever had to perform." 
    "John Ruskin" by John Everett Millais , 1953-1954, oil on canvas

After the portrait was completed, Ruskin and Millais broke off relations, and Ruskin's marriage was on the rocks. Effie, still a virgin, sued for annulment.

Ruskin may have been turned off by Effie, but Millais wasn't. They married in 1854 and had eight children together.
If this story interests or fascinates you, then you'll have a chance to see more in the upcoming movie 'Effie' which was written by actress extraordinaire Emma Thompson. ( who also acts in it)

I'm excited about one of my favorite art movements finally coming back into vogue and am looking forward to seeing the pre-Raphaelites' artwork finally taking it's much deserved spotlight. I'm also a huge fan of Emma Thompson so I'm REALLY excited to see this upcoming film which was released in the UK on March 4th, but currently has no US release date. Hopefully it will be brought across the pond soon! :)

To read more about John Ruskin
To read more about John Everett Millais
To learn about the Pre-Raphaelites


  1. I read that story on Gurney's blog of March 18. I wonder how much is true and how much is hearsay, though. Sometimes I think the accounts retelling lives of the artists are purposely embellished to make them appear more in keeping with the eccentric artist image. Gurney also did a follow-up post showing a humerous cartoon that MIllais drew, but wouldn't use his real name on, because he, himself, didn't want people to see his lighter side. Maybe that eccentric brooding artist image was his own idea!

    1. I can't answer as to the validity of Millais' eccentric life, but the things mentioned about the life of John Ruskin are absolutely true. His annulment is in writing along with his rather shocking excuse as to why he never consummated his marriage. Also true is the fact that Millais and Effie fell in love, got married and had 8 children together. I can't imagine the crushing impact her first marriage had on her sense of self worth, but I'm happy that Effie was able to find the love she seeked in Millais. (even if he was brooding and eccentric)

  2. Great Blog Rebecca, very interesting. I also love Emma Thompson's work. Just watched Looking for Mr. Banks. So very goo.

    1. Oooo 'Saving Mr. Banks' is on my Netflix list! Looking forward to seeing that one too! :)