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Course: Europe 1800 - 1900 > Unit 4

Lesson 2: The Pre-Raphaelites and mid-Victorian art

Millais, The Vale of Rest

Sir John Everett Millais, The Vale of Rest: where the weary find repose, 1858 (partially repainted 1862), oil on canvas, 40 1/2 x 68 inches (Tate Britain, London) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music) Woman: We're looking at Millais The Vale of Rest from 1858 to 59. This is really Millais' last painting in this pre-Raphaelite style that would go on to become a little bit more academic, a little bit more mainstream after this. We see two nuns. One is seated while the other digs a grave in a graveyard. Man: It's unusual for me to see a nun in such a specific physical activity for one thing, but the other nun is in opposition to that. She's really at rest. She's looking directly out at us with a very powerful gaze. Woman: The way that she looks out at us with her hands folded looking very peaceful almost as though she has accepted death and mortality and holds a rosary and a cross in her hand, communicating the idea that it's through Christ that one achieves eternal life, one that transcends earthly life. Even though there is that clue to transcendence and eternity here for the human soul, we're still really confronted with the terrible facts of death. Man: In the vividness of the soil and the gravestones. Woman: And the idea of burial and we're essentially as viewers standing within the grave. Man: It's so close to us, it's true. There's an interesting way in which the gravestones and the graveyard itself is really bound that we're enclosed in this wall. I think one of the things that I find most beautiful about this painting is the really subtle use of light, that twilight is that moment right when the sun is fading creating these really glorious silhouettes for the trees and also creating this very soft and very complex light on the figures. Woman: Yeah and it looks very real. You can really remember seeing light that looks exactly like this, this kind of golden light and the figures are backlit and light coming a little bit from the left. It almost creates halos ... Man: It does. That's right. Woman: ... in a funny way around their heads. Man: In some ways it plays with the colors in really interesting ways. You have those beautiful very subtle colors in the sky of course. Sort of cool dark greens versus sort of slightly warmer tones in some of the trees but then the greens become so vivid in the grass but there is a kind of almost ethereal quality to the color that seems almost unnatural. We've all experienced this at twilight. Woman: That's where the colors takes on a kind of intensity. Man: Absolutely but interestingly it's almost more vivid than in a bright daylight just because of the tonal contrast I think. Woman: So this is in a way a kind of modern Momento More. It's not like Masaccio's Trinity where we have a skeleton reminding us of death connected to a religious painting. This is a secular image that has been transformed into a painting with a spiritual message reminding us of the passage of time, that death can come at any time to any one of us. In a way I wonder if it has a more secular message too. Not so much that we better prepare for our salvation through Christ but maybe also to enjoy and live life to its fullest while we have it. Man: So through the beauty and the visual specificity, there is a kind of real connection to the physical world, even though the message is very much about that transition. What I find really brilliant is that here completely within the industrial world now, within our scientific world, the artist is able to re-enview a direct physical sense of the spiritual in a way that seems very authentic that doesn't need any of the artifice of the Renaissance of the baroque but is able to find a kind of spirituality within the modern world. (piano music)