When last week Loretta posted The Black Brunswickers, left, by John Everett Millais (1829-1896), and asked all of you what seemed odd about the painting, we'd no idea there'd be such a response, or so many thoughtful comments, either.
Yet some of these were pretty harsh – so harsh, in fact, that I felt I should put on my old art historian hat (yes, it's dark red velvet, with an ostrich plume) and offer a bit more about the painting and its historical context that wasn't included in the information from the museum. Without Millais himself here to explain his work, I'll add that this is my interpretation alone, and like all art there's no "right" or "wrong" way of looking at a painting.
Millais painted The Black Brunswickers in 1860. While outwardly it shows a scene from the era of the Napoleonic Wars – a soldier from the Black Brunswickers regiment says farewell to his sweetheart, going to his near-certain death – the painting is closely tied to current events of the late 1850s.
In 1851, Napoleon III had seized power in France through a coup d' état, and had increased the size and strength of the French military forces as well as modernizing their fleet and fortifications. The French standing army consisted of 400,000 men, while the British Army had been scaled down to around 150,000, of which only 42,000 were considered effective. The glories of Wellington's armies were by then a distant memory.
The political climate between the two countries was an uneasy one as well, with the French believing England was harboring would-be assassins and other enemies of the French. When the French declared war on Austria in 1859, Englishmen feared a French invasion, and clamored for a stronger national defense in the newspapers and in charged public meetings. Soon after, the Government authorized the Lord Lieutenant to raise volunteer corps throughout the country. Patriotism (and fear) led to an astonishing number of volunteers, with an average of 7,000 recruits being enlisted each month.
Millais would have been acutely aware of all of this when he began The Black Brunswicker. In much the same way that 20th c. American patriotic art freely used George Washington and Uncle Sam to combat Adolf Hitler, Millais invoked England's heroic past as a reminder to the present. He made his departing soldier a member of a volunteer regiment with a fearsome reputation, and one that not only fought with great bravery, but also suffered catastrophic losses at the pre-Waterloo engagement of Quatre Bras, 16 June 1815. Anyone in 1860 seeing that distinctive black uniform with the death's head badge on the shako would know that this soldier would most likely not be returning.
As many of you noted, the young woman's dress and hairstyle are much more in the style of 1860 than 1815. An artistic perfectionist, Millais could have given his model a perfect Regency dress, but chose not to. Instead her dress serves to blur the lines between the past and the present, to show that Englishwomen will likely be forced to make the same sacrifices in 1860 as they did in 1815. The red ribbon on her sleeve and on the dog's collar may not be "accurate", but the color is symbolic of loyalty and courage, and, of course, of blood and death. Her white dress represents purity and innocence, qualities to be protected against defiling French invaders. The Victorian wallpaper represents an 1860s home that must be defended. The print of Napoleon crossing the Alps (after a painting by Jacques Louis David), one of the emperor's finest moments, wouldn't have been found in many English homes, but it's a splendid symbol of the threat of another Napoleon.
Those who viewed the painting in 1860 would have "seen" all this, and understood the patriotism it represented. The painting didn't fare well with the critics (thanks to commenter Hope Greenberg for finding this scathing review), but it was a great favorite with the public. Millais sold it for 100 guineas, the most he'd ever received for a painting.
Yet the painting and its theme had to have had far more significance to Millais than a mere fee. With a young wife he adored and a growing family, patriotism must have been in his own thoughts, too. Soon after he'd completed the painting, Millais himself enlisted in the newly-created 38th Middlesex (Artists) Rifle Volunteers – ready to make a sacrifice of his own for England.
Composed of volunteers who were painters, sculptors, engravers, musicians, architects, and actors, the Artists Rifles is such a fascinating regiment that they deserve a post of their own, and I'll be writing one here soon. Many thanks to one of our favorite followers and fellow-bloggers Patrick Baty for sharing his own research for this post. See Patrick's Facebook page devoted to the Artists Rifles here and his Pinterest board here. Above: The Black Brunswickers, by John Everett Millais, 1860, Lady Lever Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.