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Europe 1800 - 1900

Unit 4: Lesson 2

The Pre-Raphaelites and mid-Victorian art

Sir John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents

Sir John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents, 1849-50, oil on canvas, 86.4 x 139.7 cm (Tate Britain, London)

A Serious Departure

When it appeared at the Royal Academy annual exhibition of 1850 Christ in the House of his Parents must have seemed a serious departure from standard religious imagery. Painted by the young John Everett Millais, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (P.R.B.), Christ in the House of his Parents focuses on the ideal of truth to nature that was to become the hallmark of the Brotherhood.
Sir John Everett Millais, detail Christ in the House of His Parents, 1849-50, oil on canvas, 86.4 x 139.7 cm (Tate Britain, London)
The picture centers on the young Christ whose hand has been injured, being cared for by the Virgin, his mother. Christ’s wound, a perforation in his palm, foreshadows his ultimate end on the cross. A young St. John the Baptist carefully brings a bowl of water to clean the wound, symbolic of Christ washing the feet of his disciples.  Joseph, St Anne (the Virgin’s mother) and a carpenter’s assistant also react to Christ’s accident. At a time when most religious paintings of the Holy Family were calm and tranquil groupings, this active event in the young life of the Savior must have seemed extremely radical.
Sir John Everett Millais, detail Christ in the House of His Parents, 1849-50, oil on canvas, 86.4 x 139.7 cm (Tate Britain, London)
The same can be said for Millais’ handling of the figures and the setting in the painting. Mary’s wrinkled brow and the less than clean feet of some of the figures are certainly not idealized. According to the principles of the P.R.B., the attention to detail is incredible. Each individual wood shaving on the floor is exquisitely painted, and the rough-hewn table is a more functional than beautiful. The tools of the carpenters trade are evident hanging on the wall behind, while stacks of wood line the walls. The setting is a place of work, not a sacred spot.

Painted in a Carpenter's Shop

Sir John Everett Millais, detail Christ in the House of His Parents, 1849-50, oil on canvas, 86.4 x 139.7 cm (Tate Britain, London)
William Michael Rossetti recorded in The P.R.B. Journal that Millais started to work on the subject in November 1849 and began the actual painting at the end of December. We know from Rossetti and the reminiscences of fellow Brotherhood member William Holman Hunt that Millais worked on location in a carpenter’s shop on Oxford Street, catching cold while working there in January. Millais’ son tells us that his father purchased sheep heads from a butcher to use as models for the sheep in the upper left of the canvas. He did not show the finished canvas to his friends until April of 1850.

Scathing Reviews

Although Millais’ exhibit at the Royal Academy in 1849, Isabella, had been well received, the critics blasted Christ in the House of his Parents. The most infamous review, however, was the one by Charles Dickens that appeared in his magazine Household Words in June 1850. In it he described Christ as
a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-haired boy in a nightgown, who appears to have received a poke playing in an adjacent gutter, and to be holding it up for the contemplation of a kneeling woman, so horrible in her ugliness that (supposing it were possible for any human creature to exist for a moment with that dislocated throat) she would stand out from the rest of the company as a monster in the vilest cabaret in France or in the lowest gin-shop in England.
The commentary in The Times was equally unfavorable, stating that Millais’ “attempt to associate the Holy Family with the meanest details of a carpenter’s shop, with no conceivable omission of misery, of dirt, of even disease, all finished with loathsome minuteness, is disgusting.” The painting proved to be so controversial that Queen Victoria asked that it be removed from the exhibition and brought to her so she could examine it.

At the Royal Academy

The attacks on Millais’ painting were undoubtedly unsettling for the young artist. Millais had been born in 1829 on the island of Jersey, but his parents eventually moved to London to benefit their son’s artistic education. When Millais began at the Royal Academy school in 1840 he had the distinction of being the youngest person ever to have been admitted.
At the Royal Academy, Millais became friendly with the young William Holman Hunt, who is turn introduced Millais to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the idea for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was born. The young artists exhibited their first set of paintings in 1849, all of which were well received, but the paintings shown in 1850 were universally criticized, although none with as much fervor as Christ in the House of his Parents.
Sir John Everett Millais, detail Christ in the House of His Parents, 1849-50, oil on canvas, 86.4 x 139.7 cm (Tate Britain, London)
Millais’ Christ in the House of his Parents is a remarkable religious painting for its time. It presents the Holy Family in a realistic manner, emphasizing the small details that bring the tableau to life. It is a scene we can easily imagine happening, but it is still laced with the symbolism expected of a Christian subject. It is Millais’ marriage of these two ideas that makes Christ in the House of his Parents such a compelling image, and at the same time, made it so reprehensible to Millais’ contemporaries.
Essay by Dr. Rebecca Jeffrey Easby

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  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    Why would Charles Dickens have been so critical of this painting? I thought he was known as a great social critic and the creator of Oliver Twist! I was surprised to see that a man of Dickens' social standing would have found such a "down-to-earth" painting reprehensible!?
    (2 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user Teresa O'Donnell
      I believe it is because Dickens moved in circles that included the art world. To my best understanding of his character, he would write ugly scenes, such as those in Oliver Twist to highlight injustice. To him, this painting, in it's so called ugliness, would be mocking something Holy. Given over a hundred years to contemplate the painting, he may have come to appreciate it's beauty in symbolism and the realness of the Christ Child's life. After all, Christ was born into an imperfect, corrupted world. Dickens, also, despite his genius, was not above the influence of his intellectual friends, most of whom hated this painting. Fortunately, for us, Millais continued to paint, even if he eventually moved away from the ideals of the Pre-Raphaelites.
      (7 votes)
  • piceratops tree style avatar for user isabel.miscoe
    What did Queen Victoria think of the painting? Under the "Scathing reviews" section it is stated she "examined it".
    (5 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user young.ellen.m
    I'm curious about the depiction of the clothing in this painting. The one assistant is wearing only a kind of loin cloth thing, while the other helper is covered from head to toe, and Joseph's clothing seems completely different, much more modern looking - he looks like he's wearing shirts rather than some kind of tunic or clothing that would match the others. Is there a reason for this?
    (2 votes)
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  • leaf blue style avatar for user Siddharth Sawale
    I don't understand the purpose of this painting, what did Millais want to show
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user ziriakovas
    Who is a figure in left? In video they say that it is a helper to Joseph but to me it seems unlikely that he is "just the helper".
    (1 vote)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Since this is a painting, not a photograph, and since it was done centuries after the scene that it purports to portray, the figure on the left could be anyone or no one. Other than what we learn from the gospels, that Jesus had a mother, and that his father was a carpenter, everything else you see in this painting is pure fantasy.
      (1 vote)