Sir John Everett Millais
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Click Image to Enlarge
Image courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Image courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Study for ‘The Black Brunswicker’, ca. 1859-60
Pencil, black ink, black chalk and grey wash
32 x 20 cm
Presented in memory of Margaret Byam Shaw, 1966
WA 1966.68

In this Study for ‘The Black Brunswicker,’ Millais uses both sides—recto and verso—of the paper.  A rather finished study of The Black Brunswicker (Liverpool, The National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside, 1859-60) showing the entire composition is on the recto, while the verso bears four different sketches, all far less finished: two details of the man in The Black Brunswicker, one sketch of both the man and woman, and one of the man and woman in The Huguenot (The Makins Collection, 1851-52), a painting Millais had completed in 1852.  This is the most striking feature of the drawing, namely Millais’s inclusion, among sketches for a painting he began working on in 1859, of a sketch of one his works from seven years before.

The Huguenot depicts a scene from the opera Les Huguenots, which had been performed annually in London since 1848.[i]  It takes place on the eve of St. Bartholomew’s Massacre in Paris in August of 1572, when Catholics, instigated by the Duke of Guise, slaughtered thousands of Protestants, then referred to as Huguenots.  Here, Millais portrays the moment when a Catholic girl tries to wrap a white armband (a signifier of one’s Catholicism) around her Protestant lover to protect him, but he refuses.  In the opera, she then coverts and they marry, and both are killed the next day in the massacre.  When Millais presented this painting at the Royal Academy in London, it was greeted enthusiastically by both the critics and public.[ii]

The Huguenot was so popular, that seven years later, Millais would write in a letter to his wife Effie, “Whatever I do, no matter how successful, it will always be the same story. ‘Why don’t you give us the Huguenot again?’ ” a reference to the art dealer Gambart, who kept encouraging Millais to paint popular subjects.[iii]  And in fact, it was that same year that Millais began work on The Black Brunswicker, which he described in a letter to Effie as “a perfect pendant to ‘The Huguenot.’ ”[iv]

Like The Huguenot, The Black Brunswicker, also presents two lovers in front of a background, and it, too, possesses the element of tragic love that the public and critics found so inviting in 1852, for the Black Brunswickers, a Prussian cavalry that fought at Waterloo, were almost completely decimated in that battle.  Thus, in both works, a certain somberness of impending death pervades the paintings, whether the death of both (The Huguenot) or only of one (The Black Brunswicker).  From the very inception of his idea, Millais was interested in the visual similarities that would be posed by the two pendants.  For example, the Brunswickers were known to have worn a crape on their arms as a symbol of mourning the Duke of Brunswick who had been killed in the Battle of Quatre Bras.  Knowing this, Millais at first “intend[ed] making the sweetheart of a young soldier sewing [the crape] round his arm, and vainly supplicating him to keep from the bugle-call to arms.”[v]  If the reference to the bugle call is omitted and “gentleman” inserted in the place of “soldier,” it becomes The Huguenot that the artist describes instead.  Nor was the visual similarity lost on the public.  When Millais exhibited the work at the Royal Academy in 1860, the Times immediately identified it as a pendant to The Huguenot.[vi]

Looking at the sketches on the verso once more, it becomes evident why Millais added a sketch of The Huguenot to the studies for The Black Brunswicker.  The sketches of the figures in both works are placed side by side, the positions of the Brunswicker and his sweetheart inverted from their placement in the final painting, so that he stands on the right and she on the left, an exact match to the positions of the Protestant and his lover in The Huguenot.  Visual similarities between the way he has rendered the two are many and salient: the downward tilt of the head as both men look down at the women they embrace, the women who both leans inward with one arm raised upward in a gesture of caress, the relaxed yet upright posture of both men.  Perhaps the greatest distinctions between the two are the inclusion of the armband and the hat that the Huguenot wears.  However, Millais had not left this point unnoticed.  For above, where he has drawn two details of the Brunswicker, attempting to work out his pose and manner, in the slightly larger sketch, Millais has also drawn faint circular lines around his head, clearly considering adding a hat to the Brunswicker, that he might further recall the figure of the Huguenot.  Here, in all four sketches on the verso, Millais is grappling with just how to render the second part of the pendant.  By placing the sketches of both works side by side, he compares them, trying to decide just how similar they could or should be in order for them to exist as separate works with distinct identities, but that also come together to work as pendants.

It is precisely this same issue—how similar, or how different, The Black Brunswicker should be to The Huguenot—that occupies Millais in the study on the recto, as well, evident in the changes he has made.  The figures have been inverted from the preliminary sketch, the figures taking the final position they will occupy in the painting, with the Brunswicker on the right and his lover on the left.  Furthermore, Millais has decided against the placement of a hat on the Brunswicker’s head, having him hold it in the crook of his arm instead.  Finally, and most telling, are the curved brushstrokes Millais has made in the upper-left and right corners, drawing the arched format that he had employed for The Huguenot.  And while the final form of The Black Brunswicker would be rectangular, it is significant to note that the print of the painting had the arched form.

However, although Millais is still thinking about The Black Brunswicker in relation to The Huguenot, he does so to a lesser extent.  While he has used only pencil for the drawings on the verso, hastily outlining the figures, drawing only what he needed to define the placement of forms rather than their appearance as such, he has carefully rendered the recto in pencil and ink and black chalk with a grey wash in order to model the figures and their costumes by adding shadows and tone to develop the appearance of the figures.  Carefully detailed and shaded with chalk and wash, they stand in front of a background, which itself is suggested simply by a few rapid brushstrokes, making clear that the particular emphasis of this study was the rendering of the man and woman, and not the composition as a whole.  The dress and uniform capture the bulk of Millais’s attention, his interest in the tactile surfaces of the material manifesting itself in the careful rendering of both, particularly the folds and fall of the dress.

Millais’s continued efforts to find the ideal pose for the Brunswicker (one must here recall the two details on the verso) continue in the pentimento of his arm.  Originally, the soldier’s arm had been placed slanting up against the door, but Millais then changed his mind and placed the arm in its current position, slanting down.  Since he had used black chalk to draw the arm, he had to physically scratch the black chalk off the paper.  What is really striking about the recto is Millais’s use of scratching off black chalk not only to make changes, as in the repositioning of the arm, but as an artistic technique itself.  Where drawing necessitates placing highlights first, leaving the area to be highlighted blank and then shading around it, oil painting leaves highlights for last, after the rest of the composition has been painted.  Thus, Millais, in placing black chalk on the paper and then scratching it off in order to add highlights—as in the side of the dress in which a series of white diagonal white strokes are visible, as well as in the sleeve and waist—approaches the method of painting, rather than drawing.

[i] Millais had already painted the garden wall in the background with the intention of adding two lovers in front to illustrate a line from Tennyson’s “Circumstance,” “Two Lovers whispering by a Garden Wall.:  However, when he shared this idea with his friend and fellow Pre-Raphaelite, William Holman Hunt, Hunt criticized the subject as trite and lacking interest.  He recommended that Millais be “engaged on a picture with the dramatis personae actuated by generous thought of a larger world,” and it was then that Millais decided upon the Les Huguenots for his new subject.  See William Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, vol. 1 (London: Macmillan & Co., 1905), 283-90

[ii] The Times, which had been so scathing in its reviews of Millais’s earlier Pre-Raphaelite work, was also appreciative of this work: Mr. Millais has unquestionably moved the public to interest as well as to curiousity; and, though we still smile at his puerilities, we recognize with pleasure in his works an earnest will and an increasing power of execution: we hope to see him cured of his singularities, and in turn he will gradually educate the public to appreciate his merit and to reward his perseverance.” 14 May 1852, Times. Quoted in Patricia Bradshaw Gamon, “ ‘Millais’ Luck’ ”: A Pre-Raphaelite’s Quest for Success in the Victorian Painting and Print Market, 1848-1863,” vol. 1, (Ph.D. diss., Stanford University, 1999), 159.  Part of the popularity of this painting could also be due to the growing anti-Catholic and anti-French sentiment, resulting from concerns that Napoleon III was planning an invasion of England.  Ibid, 152.

[iii] John Everett Millais to Effie Millais, 17 May 1859, in John Guille Millais, The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais, vol. 1 (New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1899), 348.

[iv] John Everett Millais to Effie Millais, 18 November 1859, in John Guille Millais 350.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Laurel Bradley, “ ‘Millais, Our Popular Painter,’ ” John Everett Millais: Beyond the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, ed. Debra N. Mancoff (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 186.

Isabel Suchanek

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