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Europe 1800 - 1900

Course: Europe 1800 - 1900 > Unit 4

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

Millais, Mariana

Sir John Everett Millais, Mariana, 1851, oil on wood, 597 x 495 mm (Tate Britain). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music) >> Dr. Harris: She only said, "My life is dreary, "He cometh not," she said. She said, "I am aweary, aweary, "I would that I were dead." >> Dr. Zucker: These are lines from a poem by Tennyson, the great Victorian poet, who had recently been made Poet Laureate in England just the year before John Everett Millais painted "Mariana" in 1851. >> Dr. Harris: In turn, Tennyson's poem was based on Shakespeare's play, "Measure for Measure," and the story is of a woman abandoned by her fiance for many years, and we see a very typical pre-Raphaelite subject of a woman alone. >> Dr. Zucker: And the painting by Millais seems to me ages away from the original play, "Measure for Measure." The story of Mariana is perhaps a serious one, but it's within a play that is a comedy, and yet this painting is completely divorced from that. >> Dr. Harris: And that play has a happy ending. The woman is actually reunited with her fiance. >> Dr. Zucker: And we can't imagine that in this rendering by Millais, so what we see is this woman in this absolutely glorious blue dress who is stretching her back and seems to be in the midst of a terrible melancholy. >> Dr. Harris: She has gotten up from her embroidery, which we get a sense that she's been working on for a very long time, and there is an obvious sense of waiting. I mean the poem is all about waiting and time passing and this idea of the passage of time, and a painting expressing a mood or a feeling are two strands that we see a lot in pre-Raphaelite painting. >> Dr. Zucker: It's that heroism of emotion itself as an event that can be painted that is so particular to 19th century British art. >> Dr. Harris: And an inner emotion, a solitary emotion because before, there would be narrative paintings with people enacting emotions toward each other. And here, the narrative isn't about Mariana at the moment of her being abandoned by her fiance but a moment of waiting. It's a funny moment to paint. >> Dr. Zucker: Millais is really brilliant in his ability to create for us a sense of what she thinks and what she sees. She is surrounded in this painting by a set of things to look at. And as we look at them, we imagine her looking at them. We have that intensely rendered embroidery on the table, and then we have those leaves that have fallen that almost look as if they will also be embroidered into that pattern, but they heighten so greatly the sense of melancholy and the sense of loss. >> Dr. Harris: And the sense of the passage of time. Autumn leaves, the passing of the seasons, this idea that this is a space that she occupies year after year with a sense of patient or maybe even not so patient waiting. >> Dr. Zucker: Those forms, those colors, the things that occupy her visual field are painted so painstakingly. >> Dr. Harris: And the room is small. We only see part of it, but we have a real sense of enclosure and entrapment. She is caught between the stool and the table that she's been working at. And behind her, we see an altar, a private devotional space, so we have the sense of her life being taken up between prayer and this meditative work of embroidery and this idea of waiting. We also see a scene of the Annunciation in the windows. It's hard for me not to read this as a sense of entrapment of women generally in the Victorian era, in waiting, in sitting, in doing their needlework, in being devout in a limited life. >> Dr. Zucker: And we can see her almost physical strain against that restriction. As she stretches her back, she wants to move out into the world. There really is the sense of bondage there. >> Dr. Harris: Outside, we see the leaves, and we see the ground, and we see light. >> Dr. Zucker: Look at Millais' ability to render the textures of the forms that he's depicted, the velvet on that seat cushion and her dress. >> Dr. Harris: And how vivid the reds and the blues and the golds are. It's that pre-Raphaelite intensity of color that's so different than the colors that a Victorian viewer would see in academic painting. >> Dr. Zucker: And it's so clearly based on direct observation as opposed to ideal form. He really went out of his way to make sure that there was a kind of authenticity to what he is rendering. >> Dr. Harris: The mouse on the lower right that we see was actually painted from a dead mouse apparently that Millais caught in his studio, and the mouse appears in Tennyson's poem. >> Dr. Zucker: And even the stained glass window was painted directly from an actual stained glass window at Oxford University that the artist had climbed up some scaffolding to get a good close look at. >> Dr. Harris: It feels to me as part of what the painting is about is a tension between nature and art. The leaves from the outside have come in, so we have nature coming inside. We have the stained glass windows which are art which look out into nature. There is a confluence of the wall paper on the wall behind her body and then the leaves outside. She's trapped in an interior in which the exterior seems to have invaded. It feels as though there is some theme there of nature and art and God and the Divine. >> Dr. Zucker: And as if her embroidery is artifice that is a representation of the thing that she is yearning to join. >> Dr. Harris: Also as though the life of art, the life of her embroidery, and the life of devotion is not enough, and there is that yearning ... >> Dr. Zucker: That's right. >> Dr. Harris: And for love. (piano music)