NGV Old Master Portraits: Sir John Everett Millais

NGV - Millais - Cecil WebbFriday, 7 January 2011

NGV Old Master Portraits: Sir John Everett Millais

Created in the twilight years of his career, late portraits of Sir John Everett Millais speak of painterly wisdom and artistic maturity. The present portrait of Cecil Prout Webb, of 1887, painted within the last decade of the artist’s life, is an exercise in technical skill and stylistic perfection. The boy is portrayed full-length out of doors, seated on a moss-covered garden seat, dressed in a smart winter coat edged with fur, and sporting a pair of new shiny boots and leather gloves. Children occupy a significant place in the artist’s oeuvre, and he often used his own children and those of his neighbours and friends as prototypes for some of the most successful genre pictures, like My First Sermon (1863), Cherry Ripe (1879) and Soap Bubbles (1886).

Franz Xaver Winterhalter - Leopold Duc de Brabant

Traditional iconography of the portrait would have been clearly read by a 19th-century spectator. Young Master Webb is no ordinary boy, but an heir to what Nancy Mitford termed in her novels “all this”. His carefully tailored coat with its rich trimmings sits comfortably on the boy, and his leather shoes are of the proper black colour as becoming of a young gentleman. Furthermore, the woodland setting and a moss-covered stone seat speak of establishment, stability, and continuity, while the overgrown garden scape evokes a traditional country manor.

However, there is a sad twist to this story. Recent research, based on the date of the portrait and the dates of the sitter’s life, indicates that this is a posthumous portrait of the boy. As such, it would have been commissioned by the boy’s parents from Millais (a highly successful as well as fashionable portrait painter of the era, with charges of up to £2,000 for a full length likeness) on the basis of photographs.

NGV - Millais - Cecil Webb Detail

True to the prevalent Victorian painterly tradition where ‘every picture tells a story’, Millais incorporated this sad narrative into the portrait. The rays that light the boy’s face belong to a sun of spring, traditionally identified in painting with youth, while a shiver of winter that permeates the twilight atmosphere allegorises old age.  Similarly, while traditionally children were represented dressed in light summer’s day clothes, the sombre winter attire of the young Master Webb may also point to his untimely passing.

Millais’s portraits of children are usually filled with energy and effervescence, and more often than not are highly original compositions based on sketches and drawings from life. However, faced with a challenge of creating an original work of art based on a photographic still, Millais may have sought inspiration from such earlier portrait painters like Franz Xaver Winterhalter, whose portrait of the young Duc de Brabant of 1844 it strongly resembles. It is highly probable that Millais found a successful resolution to this challenge by basing the present portrait on an existing iconographic template.

Landscape and portraiture – two of the most popular genres in English painting – are brought together successfully in this canvas by Millais, an accomplished master of both. The painting thus leaves the confines of portraiture and evolves into Millais’ aesthetic reflection on youth and the transcendent essence of life.

[© Eugene Barilo von Reisberg 2011. This article is copyright, but the full or partial use is WELCOME with the full and proper acknowledgment]

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Eugene Barilo v. Reisberg

January 2011


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