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Course: 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, 864 x 1397 mm (Tate Britain, London). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

BETH HARRIS: We're in Tate Britain, and we're looking at John Everett Millais' really important early pre-Raphaelite painting, "Christ in the House of his Parents. STEVEN ZUCKER: The pre-Raphaelites wanted to strip away all of the traditions of painting that had accumulated, almost like heavy layers of varnish, on paintings since the Renaissance, since Raphael. And nowhere is that more clearer than in this painting. BETH HARRIS: So what we see here is Christ as a child. He's wounded himself. We see a drop of blood, clearly foreshadowing the crucifixion. And we see Mary, his mother, comforting him, and also, I think, being comforted by him. And then we also see Saint John the Baptist, and also Joseph, who's also tending to Christ. STEVEN ZUCKER: He's showing us Christ not in an idealized environment, But in a workshop that reminded contemporary viewers of what a carpenter's workshop in mid-19th century England looked like, a kind of specificity that showed that he was really looking. BETH HARRIS: So it's not idealized at all. It's not softened, it's not made more beautiful. And all of that really went against traditional treatments of the holy family, of Mary, and Christ, and Saint Joseph, and Saint John. Since the time of Raphael and Leonardo, those figures were truly idealized in a way that reflected their divine status. So by taking that idealization away, I think it felt, to Victorian viewers, as though Millais had undermined the spirituality of these figures. STEVEN ZUCKER: All of that is true, but there are some exceptions. If we think back to the work, for instance, of Caravaggio, you have an artist is taking spiritual figures and placing them in a world, that was concrete, that was low, that was real. But he was still ensconcing them in a kind of spiritual darkness. And here it's as if Millais has turned the lights on in a Caravaggio. And he's giving us this brilliant spotlight on the specificity, even of the dirt under the fingernails. BETH HARRIS: And that was certainly something that was recognized by Victorian viewers. This painting was attacked by Charles Dickens, of all people, who wrote, "In the foreground of that very carpenter's shop is a hideous rye-necked, blubbering, redheaded boy in a bed gown, who appears to have received a poke in the hand from the stick of another boy with whom he has been playing in an adjacent gutter. And to be holding it up for the contemplation of a kneeling women, so horrible in her ugliness, that she would stand out from the rest of the company as a monster in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin shop in England." STEVEN ZUCKER: It's so interesting to hear Dickens actually turn against the kind of specificity that the artist is rendering, since it's so much a part of his own literature. But it does speak to expectations in the 19th century about what art should be, at this moment when the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was trying to remake those expectations. BETH HARRIS: And so if you look at the painting carefully, you can see that the figures have an angularity. They move in ways that feel very different from the gracefulness and elegance of Renaissance figures. There's a linear hardness to the way that Millais has created their contours. STEVEN ZUCKER: And that hardness reminds us of Flemish painting from before Rafael from, say, the early 15th century. It is really the self-conscious reviving of those ideas. And just like in that northern Flemish painting, we also have borrowed this notion that one can imbue ordinary objects with symbolism. And this is a painting that is full of symbolism. For instance, if we look just over the young Christ's head, we can see on the back wall, there's a carpenter's triangle. Just over Christ's head, that triangle means something. It means the Trinity. BETH HARRIS: And we might look at the ladder in the background, and think about the ladder that we see in images of the descent from the cross, where the followers of Christ climb a ladder, in order to remove the nails and bring him down from the cross. STEVEN ZUCKER: We can see those nails, but also, on that ladder, there's a dove, the reference to the ultimate baptism of Christ, where the Holy Spirit will appear, who's always was represented as a dove. BETH HARRIS: And we see Saint John the Baptist actually on the right, carrying a bowl of water. STEVEN ZUCKER: So there is this kind of vivid rendering of all these forms, all these people, with the kind of particularity that is not idealized, that makes them all the more true, all the more vivid. And so we can immediately imagine why the Victorians had such problems with this painting. [MUSIC PLAYING]