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1863 Millais' The Eve of St Agnes

Back in the early days of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Millais’ Royal Academy exhibits had segregated critics into camps: favourable or hostile. In 1863, his principal contribution, The Eve of St. Agnes, proved equally controversial but tended rather to divide critics against themselves (Fig. 1). The title and ten hauntingly beautiful lines quoted in the catalogue clearly indicated the painting’s derivation from the poem by John Keats, first published in 1820. Yet critics across the full spectrum of opinion, from Millais’ staunchest supporters to those who still opposed any hint of Pre-Raphaelitism, could only find points of difference between painting and poem.

One can sense the frustration as critics tried, and failed, to deploy their well-honed techniques for describing a literary or narrative subject of the kind familiar in the previous generation and still practised, for example, by Edward Matthew Ward in Hogarth’s Studio, 1739 (Fig. 2). Here was a readily legible story with a genuinely heart-warming moral: the children of the Foundling Hospital have been invited to Hogarth’s studio to be given delicious refreshment as they inspect the portrait of their benefactor, Captain Coram, who hides with Hogarth behind the painting to overhear their delighted reactions. The painting was a gift to critics who liked to enumerate anecdotes—Mrs Hogarth cutting the cake, the black servant-boy bringing the gooseberry wine, the nosegay offered by the smallest child to the portrait, proving it so life-like that it could be mistaken for the real Captain Coram. The conclusion was inevitable: Ward had dramatised his scene with “a clearness in the narrative which Hogarth himself could not have surpassed”.1

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There could scarcely be a greater contrast between Ward’s sunny interior and Millais’ darkened room; this was the kind of juxtaposition that only the Academy, with its catholic representation of contemporary art, could afford. Ward’s bright light, crisp edges, and sharp contrasts helped to make his story as clear as could be, whereas Millais’ shadowy depths seemed only to call attention to the uncertain relationship between the painting and the poetic text it purported to illustrate. William Michael Rossetti, for whom the Millais was unequivocally “the great picture of the year”, enumerated the ways in which it departed from literal adherence to Keats’ words: Madeline faces the bed, when she should be turning her back; the setting is Jacobean, whereas Keats’ was medieval; the window is square and mullioned though Keats’ was “triple-arch’d”.2 F.G. Stephens dwelt on what he called the picture’s “anachronism”: the girl, “of our own day”, is not contemporary with the sixteenth-century room, and neither is contemporary with the fourteenth-century setting of the poem.3

It is interesting that both Rossetti and Stephens, the two Pre-Raphaelite Brothers who were now writing art criticism, brought out the conflict between adherence to the written text and observational truth. For Stephens, Millais was honour-bound to depict accurately the bedchamber at Knole House in which he had chosen to set the scene, even though it dated two centuries too late for the poem’s narrative. Moreover, both critics noted that Millais painted the moonlight “accurately silvered down” (in Rossetti’s term), not richly coloured as Keats’ words implied—an effect more like sunlight passing through a stained glass window, which several critics excused as poetic licence on Keats’ part.4

Even hostile critics were prepared to praise “the wonderful truth and skill with which the effects of moonlight are painted”.5 What gave critics pause, however, was Millais’ readiness to jettison fidelity to the literary source as soon as it came into conflict with his pictorial aims. Moreover, the point went beyond Pre-Raphaelite observational naturalism. For most critics, Rossetti and Stephens included, the most salient departure from Keats’ poem was in the female figure, not an angel (as Keats described his Madeline) but rather a ghost, a shadow, phantom, or spectre, or even, in the most extreme response, “a body rising in grave-clothes, already tainted by corruption”.6

Millais’ willingness to extrapolate from his source challenged an assumption that critics, across the spectrum, took for granted: that in cases where a picture derived from a textual source, the words of the text automatically took priority over the painter’s imagination. Millais’ painting seemed to propose the opposite: that the painter’s first duty was to the visible scene he was creating, and that the words of the source came second, even if that source was a poem by Keats. This amounted to a nineteenth-century version of the Renaissance paragone, or comparison between art forms. Rather than a contest between painting and sculpture, as in the Renaissance, Millais’ painting turns on that between literature and visual art, an early adumbration of what would become one of the key concerns of modernism.

When The Eve of St. Agnes reappeared in Paris, at the Exposition Universelle of 1867, the response was understandably different, from critics who knew nothing of Keats’ poem: “No doubt there is in England some legend about a mysterious night, where anything can happen”, opined Théophile Thoré, whose nickname for the painting, “The Green Woman”, caught on among artists.7 The ghostlike figure, gloomy surroundings, and moonlight effect made a strong impact in French artistic circles. In 1868, Théophile Gautier referred to the painting in his important preface to Baudelaire’s works (admittedly to contrast it unfavourably to Baudelaire’s evocation of moonlight in the prose-poem Les Bienfaits de la lune), and the protagonist of Joris-Karl Huysmans’ famous “decadent” novel of 1884, À rebours, recalls “its moonlight effect of silvery-green tones”.8

In their ignorance of Keats, the French critics and artists were perhaps more prepared to fall under the picture’s spell, but the visual power was the same on both sides of the channel. One departure from Keats seems to have gone unnoticed: there is no obvious closet within which Porphyro, according to the poem, ought to be hiding. Instead, the painting places us, the viewers, in the position of Porphyro, peering from his hiding-place at the woman, too sensual to be an angel, as mysterious as a ghost.

  1. [Joseph Beavington Atkinson, anonymously published], The Art-Journal (1 June 1863): 106.↩︎

  2. W.M. Rossetti, Fraser’s Magazine 67 (June 1863): 787. Compare John Keats, “The Eve of St Agnes”, Stanza XXIV, line 1; in Stanza XXVI, lines 8–9, Madeline “dares not look behind” to see the vision of St Agnes “in her bed”.↩︎

  3. [F.G. Stephens, anonymously published], The Athenaeum 1853 (2 May 1863): 589.↩︎

  4. [F.T. Palgrave, anonymously published], The Saturday Review 15 (16 May 1863): 628.↩︎

  5. [Tom Taylor, anonymously published], The Times, 2 May 1863, 11.↩︎

  6. [Joseph Beavington Atkinson, anonymously published], The Art-Journal (1 June 1863): 108; cf. [Joseph Beavington Atkinson, anonymously published], “The London Art Season”, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 88 (July 1863): 70.↩︎

  7. Quoted in Theodore Reff, Degas: The Artist’s Mind (London: Thames & Hudson, 1976), 229.↩︎

  8. Théophile Gautier, “Charles Baudelaire”, in Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du mal: précédees d’une notice par Théophile Gautier (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1868), 74; J.-K. Huysmans, Against Nature: A New Translation of À Rebours, trans. Robert Baldick (London: Penguin Books, 1959), 136.↩︎

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