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1857 A "Catastrophe" at the Royal Academy

The motto on the title page of the Royal Academy catalogue for 1857 is a call to individualism: “Let none resemble the other, yet let each resemble the Highest. How is this to be done? Let every man be accomplished in himself.” This dictum comes from the German poet Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805) and appeared in the original German. But attentive visitors to the exhibition, German speakers or not, might have intuited the underlying challenge: how to strike the balance between artistic tradition and novelty?

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Along these very lines, John Everett Millais’s A Dream of the Past: Sir Isumbras at the Ford divided viewers in 1857 (Fig. 1). Millais combined the ambitions of history painting with the more imaginative aspects of “a dream of the past”: the medieval knight, Sir Isumbras, carries a woodcutter’s children, who are laden with wood, across a swollen river. Although the knight was the subject of a fourteenth-century poem, Millais chose to depict a scene not in the original text. Instead, he exhibited the painting with a spurious medievalising verse by the art critic Tom Taylor, extending the notion of this painting as a “dream”. Some were enchanted by Millais’s masterful evocation of different ages and emotional states, as well as the striking contrast between the gleaming gold armour of the knight and the richly dark coat of his steed. The artist Walter Crane, who visited the Academy exhibition at the age of twelve with his father, recalled that the painting “impressed me beyond words … it was strikingly original: it was romantic, and was a very forcible and truthful piece of painting, and in a manner quite fresh to my youthful eyes.”1 Not everyone was enthusiastic, however. The critic for The Art Journal chastised Millais for the historical inaccuracies in the painting, while The National Magazine admired the sentiment but criticised the composition.2 Most notably, John Ruskin attacked the painting, having previously championed the art of Millais and his fellow Pre-Raphaelites.3

Ruskin objected to nearly every aspect of Millais’s painting, which he called “a catastrophe.”4 The critic was responding to the first hints that Millais was moving away from the doctrine of “truth to nature”. While Millais painted the landscape background in Perthshire, Scotland, complete with its ruined medieval bridge, Ruskin objected to the way in which the artist exaggerated nature for emotional effect. He termed the analogies between painting and feeling a “pathetic fallacy” in the third volume of his treatise Modern Painters (1856). Nevertheless, the painting was so striking that it became something like a Victorian meme. A parody by the artist Frederick Sandys appeared in May 1857, the same month that the Exhibition opened. Now titled The Nightmare, Sandys has replaced the knight with a caricature of Millais. Fellow Pre-Raphaelites Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt take the place of the children, while the horse has become a braying donkey with the initials “J.R.” for John Ruskin. Perhaps Ruskin’s criticism stung, as Millais re-worked the painting at the end of the Academy Exhibition in 1857, in 1886 before his retrospective exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery, and again in 1887 following its purchase by the collector Robert Henry Benson. The painting appeared in subsequent political caricatures well into the twentieth century.5

A second work by Millais at the Summer Exhibition, The Escape of a Heretic, 1559 furthered this imaginative approach to history even as it engaged in a different aspect of Ruskin’s art criticism (Fig. 2). (He also exhibited a third that same year, News from Home, now in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore). As Alison Smith has noted, Millais added emotional and psychological depth to the tradition of history painting through these “dreams” of the past that “universalize the emotions experienced by individuals trapped in situations beyond their control.”6 This additional layer of psychological complexity was usually lacking in history painting, which tended to focus on heroic achievements. Millais likely asked the historian Sir William Stirling of Keir to compose a spurious account of the Inquisition in Spain in the 1550s, which would textually underpin his image. The artist’s sister-in-law, Sophie Gray, posed as the (fictional) heretic María Juana de Acuña y Villajos, while Dalhousie Castle near Edinburgh stood in for Valladolid. A heretic, identified by her smock, is freed by her lover, but the subject confused some viewers, who had difficulty working out the details of the narrative. As The Athenaeum noted, “our conceit baffled and our curiosity nettled, we spell out the true story by help of the real document,” from which Millais “quoted” in the Exhibition Catalogue. Alas, this historical document was fake.7 Ruskin castigated Millais for abandoning the study of nature in favour of such theatrical effects. How could a viewer locate the moral meaning of art amidst these layers of imagination and artifice?

If A Dream of the Past confuses nature and emotion in a way that contravened the boundaries of Ruskin’s taste, then The Heretic is almost a caricature in its exaggerated gestures and expressions. In fact, the painting alludes to this tradition of crude and overstated designs with the decoration of the heretic’s bright yellow apron. The grotesque demons dancing around the flames are the exact opposite of Ruskin’s ideal of art based on the careful study of the natural world.8 They seem to herald the possibility that art could do more than act as a mirror of nature, an idea explored further by Millais in the coming years and by the generation of artists associated with the Aesthetic movement.

  1. Walter Crane, Artist’s Reminiscences (London: Methuen, 1907), 39.↩︎

  2. “The Exhibition of the Royal Academy”, The Art Journal, June 1857, 30; The National Magazine, July 1857, 2.↩︎

  3. By 1857, the painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had each moved in different artistic and personal directions. And Millais and Ruskin failed to rebuild their rapport after the annulment of Ruskin’s marriage to Effie Gray in 1854 and her subsequent marriage to Millais in 1855.↩︎

  4. E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, The Library Edition of the Works of John Ruskin, vol. 14 (London: George Allen, 1903–12), 107.↩︎

  5. Julie Codell, “Sir Isumbras, M.P.: Millais’s Painting and Political Cartoons”, The Journal of Popular Culture 22, no. 3 (Winter 1988): 29–47.↩︎

  6. Jason Rosenfeld and Alison Smith, Millais (London: Tate Publishing, 2008), 110.↩︎

  7. “Fine Arts: Royal Academy”, The Athenaeum, 9 May 1857, 603.↩︎

  8. As discussed by Paul Barlow, Time Present and Time Past: The Art of John Everett Millais (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), 82.↩︎

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