Saturday, 5 April 2008

COMMENTARY: 'Autumn Leaves' by John Everett Millais (1856)

Published: STUDENT DIRECT, April 2008
In continuation from last weeks look at Ford Maddox Brown, the focus now falls on John Everett Millais, one of the three main figureheads of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and an artist greatly influenced by the work of Brown.

Millais was an astonishingly talented and early blooming painter, joining the Royal Academy when he was just ten years of age. Known for having an amazing visual memory, as well as hand and eye skill far above the average, his works seem to offer a completeness of composition and style not often found. He is said to have commented on his method: ‘I have painted every touch in my head, as it were, long ago, and have now only to transfer it to canvas’ (Raymond Watkinson, Pre-Raphaelite Art and Design, p.46), which is an ability that I at least find incredibly difficult to comprehend.

Autumn Leaves, which was placed within the Royal Academy exhibition the year it was painted, portrays an idyllic and inviting image. Four young girls, all still within childhood, clear the expanse of grass behind them from the fallen leaves. Their similarity in appearance and demeanour suggest that they are sisters, cherub like and innocent. Their dresses suggest poverty rather than opulence. The sky is bright and clear, glowing a magnificent gold over them and lighting their hair like halos. The darkness of the background makes the air seem as crisp as the dried leaves, which you can literally hear crunching under the girl’s feet when you stand before the painting. It is serene and still, a frozen moment, the leaves falling from the eldest girls hands poised mid air, in the act of floating through the mist.

It is a painting seeped in mortality and reflection. The setting sun and dying leaves suggest the passing of time, of closure and death. This is event more apparent with their juxtaposition to the youth and beauty of the four girls, which contrasts to the decay around them. It is almost as if they are the spring that is born out of winter, bursting anew from the bonfire they are building. The apple in the youngest girls hand, holds connotations of the apple from the Garden of Eden, and the cause of original sin; the sin that brought us our mortality. It tells us that the girls are fated to die just like the leaves, and reminds us that we too will all come to an end.

As an artwork it is slightly different to the typical Pre-Raphaelite style, the brushwork is broader and softer rather than hard and pointed. This works perfectly, however, with the autumn dusk, glowing light and silence of the rural setting. The colours, all harmoniously warm, contrast to the harsh and bright colours of Millais earlier work.

As was the aim of the Pre-Raphaelites, Millais projects a meticulously correct visual account of the subject and setting. Each element is painstakingly depicted - the fabric of the young girls dresses, the heaviness of their skirts, the different textures of their hair. The rural setting is shown in intricate detail; each leaf seems individual. Millais’s documentation of his subject feels as immediate as a photograph, despite the time and effort they must have taken to achieve. Autumn Leaves is a beautiful and moving image to observe.

No comments:

Post a Comment