Wednesday, July 3, 2013

More About That Dashing Officer & the Woman in White in "The Black Brunswickers"

Wednesday, July 3, 2013
Isabella reporting,

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' ├ętat, 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.


Catherine Curzon said...

Thanks for those very insightful comments; my sister utterly loathes this painting for all manner of reasons so I shall certainly be waving this post under her nose!

Regencyresearcher said...

The painting is sentimental. One doesn't look to artists for costume accuracy when painting out of the period.
Despite all else, the sentiment of the picture is all to sharp still. I have sen too many men off to war father, brother, husband, son in law not to sympathize with the lady's desire to keep him from going out of that door.
The barrier is momentary. We let them go and spend days, hours minutes with fear clawing at our souls as we wait for each sign that the person is still alive.
My brother didn't actually do off to war but his time in the service was disasterous for him anyway.

Karen Anne said...

War - sometimes I think women should just lock men up in the cellar until they come to their senses.

Reina M. Williams said...

Fascinating! Thanks!

DanielleThorne said...

Thank you for the detailed explanation. It was very helpful to me and made me admire the painting even more.

Alyssa Everett said...

What a fascinating post! Thanks for sharing both the painting and the story behind it. (Loved the Royal Academy review Hope Greenberg pointed out, too--I feel quite sorry for the handsome young Life Guards model whose "receding chin" gives "but a poor notion of that devoted band who were pledged to vengeance for their sovereign's death.")

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

The number of comments for these two posts proves the emotional power of this painting. Like it or not, it's hard to ignore. Thanks to everyone for commenting - Loretta and I can't remember a better discussion!

Alyssa, I loved the Royal Academy review, too. Of special interest in it (besides all the slagging!) is that they got their facts wrong! The death of Frederick William, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel, founder of the regiment, was not a motivating factor for his regiment before Quatre Bras, because he was still alive to fight in it. He was killed then, along with many of his men.

I thought this little error was particularly interesting because, as NHGs, we always like to quote the original source. But here what seems like an original source (from 1860) is incorrect. Also proving that , with history, it's very hard to get everything "right."

Regina Kammer said...

I came across this blog post from your tweet about Millais' birthday today. I have always loved this painting and when I was researching my upcoming Victorian-set novel I was so happy to see that this was hung at the 1860 Summer Exhibition! So of course my characters have to admire it which sets off emotions of love and loss. One has to wear one's art historian hat when one views art. In this case, yes, it is absolutely evocative of Victorian sentiments rather than a document of Regency events. Awesome blog post!

Unknown said...

Thanks for an enjoyable discussion.

Would any of you have an opinion about why her skirt is painted with fold lines in it? Was it simply the style? I've noticed it now and then before this but never seen an explanation. It must have taken a good deal of effort on the part of the painter and the presser.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Helen, those folds in her dress have always bugged me, too. They're clearly intentional, and they must have some special significance, but I've never come across an "art history" explanation.

At that time, most clothes weren't folded, but hung from pegs along a wall or in a wardrobe. The only time that a silk dress like this would be folded would be when it was put away for a long time in a chest - in storage. So perhaps there's some sort of symbolism there, that soon this light-colored dress will be put away in favor of mourning? Only a wild guess - I really don't know for certain, and I'd welcome suggestions from anyone who knows better!

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