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'The Black Brunswicker' (1860), by John Everett Millais


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About the artwork

The theme of ‘The Black Brunswicker’ is an imaginative incident highlighting a historical moment. The Black Brunswickers were a special troop raised by Frederick William Duke of Brunswick (1771-1815) in 1809. The regiment consisted of the best German gentlemen and was known as the ‘Death or Glory’, a name derived from their distinctive death’s head hat badge and their apparent devotion to duty. The troops suffered severe losses at the battle of Quatre Bras at Waterloo in 1815. In a letter to Effie, Millais described his idea and his enthusiasm for the subject:

“My subject appears to me, too, most fortunate, and Russell (the war correspondent of Times) thinks it first-rate… I have it all in my mind’s eye and feel confident that it will be a prodigious success. The costume and incident are so powerful that I am astonished it has never been touched upon before. Russell was quite struck with it, and he is the best man for knowing the public taste. Nothing could be kinder than his interest, and he is to set about getting all the information that is required.”

Millais spent three months painting ‘The Black Brunswicker’. Studies for the work exist both in the Lady Lever Art Gallery’s archives as well as in Tate Britain. Millais used Charles Dickens’s daughter Kate as the model for the girl and a private in the Life Guards for the soldier. Victorian morals dictated that each had to model separately using a lay figure to lean against. Millais wished to be historically accurate in making the girl’s dress look quite antique (it is actually a compromise between the fashions of 1859 and 1815 when waists were still kept high).

The intensity of emotions is well conveyed in the close encounter of the couple, the girl’s body attempting to obstruct the soldier from his task and prevent his destiny. The dark and enclosed space enhances the tragedy of the scene. The work appeals both to spectators’ patriotism and sentimentality. The only distraction is perhaps the brilliant shine of the girl’s dress, its creases tempting spectators’ tactile senses.

The dog at the soldier’s feet also draws attention to the humanity of the subject. On the wall of the room an engraving of a painting by JL David (1748-1825), depicting Napoleon crossing the Alps serves as a reminder of Waterloo while also alluding to current events in 1860, when Napoleon III entered upon a war in Northern Italy in an attempt to expel the Austrians.

‘The Black Brunswicker’ was greatly admired when exhibited at the Royal Academy Exhibition in 1860 and was bought for the highest price, 100 guineas, Millais had yet received by the famous dealer and publisher Ernest Gambart. Leverhulme bought this picture for his collection in 1898.

‘The Black Brunswicker’ is a seminal work in Millais’s career. He had received bad publicity for his painting ‘Christ in the House of his Parents’ (1850, Tate Britain) and from then on avoided religious subject matter. In 1857 Ruskin spoke of Millais’s painting ‘Sir Isumbras at the Ford’ (also on display at the main hall of the Lady Lever Art Gallery) as

“not merely a fall - it is catastrophe’’.

However Millais’s fame was restored with ‘The Black Brunswicker’ because of its sentimentality and its technical brilliance, marking Millais’s return to his early painting style. During the first ten years of his career with works such as ‘Lorenzo and Isabella’ and ‘Sir Isumbras’, Millais stated his loyalty to the principles of the Pre-Raphaelite movement but later on wished to depart from mere attention to detail and tried, as one can see in ‘Apple Blossom’ (on display at the main hall of the Lady Lever Art Gallery) to avoid minute transcriptions of nature, his style becoming more suggestive and symbolic than descriptive.

John Everett Millais was born in Southampton to a wealthy Jersey family. Millais’s talent for drawing led his family to move to London to further their son’s artistic career. After training in the Sass’s School in London he enrolled at the Royal Academy at the age of 11. At the Royal Academy he met the painters Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

The three young students were disappointed with the teaching at the Royal Academy and the style of High Victorian art which prevailed at the Academy. They found that the greatly stylised and idealistic manner of painters such as Frederic Leighton had deprived art of a true spirit and its capacity to move spectators. In their efforts to promote a new type of art, less reliant on classicism and idealism, the three painters, together with others, founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848.

The name of the movement refers to their artistic influences coming from art made before the Renaissance artist Raphael(1483-1520), namely medieval art. Millais marked the establishment of the Pre-Raphaelite movement by including the initials PRB on the bench where Lorenzo and Isabella are seated in his masterpiece from that era, ‘Lorenzo and Isabella’ (held at the Walker Art Gallery).

The movement was in reality only a loose formation, which did not last more than a few years, despite the fact that the founding members and artists continued to paint in a similar manner even after they had resigned and departed from a common goal.

Millais met John Ruskin, the British art critic who supported the cause of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1851. The two men spent some time in Scotland in 1853 where Millais became close to Ruskin’s wife Effie Gray, whom he later married. Millais was greatly influenced by the teaching of Ruskin and his truth to nature dogma.

Ruskin praised Millais’s work comparing him with the other important British painter Turner. However Ruskin and Millais’s friendship broke up when the painter devoted himself to painting portraits of famous people (around 1880), an art form that Ruskin considered a sell-out of Millais’s talents. Millais was elected a Royal Acedemician in 1863 and a President of the Royal Academy in 1896 when already ill with cancer. When he died he was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral next to Frederic Leighton.