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'Cymon and Iphegenia', by Sir John Everett Millais


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About the artwork

This picture has recently been acquired for the Lady Lever collection. It was owned previously by the third Lord Leverhulme, who inherited it from the first Lord Leverhulme. It has been accepted into the national collections under the terms of the government's 'in lieu' system, as part-payment for estate duties. Millais was Lord Leverhulme's favourite artist and the picture now joins the other 7 paintings by this artist that can be seen at the Lady Lever Art Gallery.

Millais painted this picture in 1847-48, when he was 18 years old. He was at the time a student at the Royal Academy and regarded as something of a prodigy. In 1846 an earlier painting by Millais called 'Pizarro seizing the Inca of Peru'had been received with considerable acclaim when exhibited at the summer exhibition of the Royal Academy. This picture was his next major serious subject painting. Rather surprisingly it does not seem to have been exhibited and was bought directly from Millais by the Oxford collector and dealer James Wyatt for £60. Millais borrowed it back from Wyatt in 1852 to repaint the sky and retouch some of the foliage and draperies.

The subject is based upon a story from the Italian 15th century writer Boccaccio's 'Decameron'. Cymon, a good-looking but coarse-mannered and uneducated young man fell in love with the beautiful Iphegenia and eventually married her. Cymon was transformed into a sophisticated and accomplished gentleman as a result of the power of their mutual love. The story was quite well-known, having been translated into English verse by Dryden as well as later, in 1767, being turned into a dramatic romance with music by Thomas Augustine Arne - with the great actor David Garrick in the leading role. Arne had already enjoyed considerable success with a cantata for solo voice based upon the story of Cymon and Iphegenia which had been sung in public by a Mr Lowe at Vauxhall Gardens in 1750. Earlier artists had painted the subject including Rubens, Lely, Reynolds and Benjamin West.

It is not unusual to find a young and rising artist setting himself a challenging subject that had previously been done by other artists and in the process effectively inviting comparison for his treatment of the theme. It is also not unusual to find a young artist painting in the manner of an already successful contemporary or past artist and inviting comparison for his technical skills.

In this picture Millais, in the forms and faces of the female figures, most strongly evokes the pictures of William Etty, the great Victorian painter of the classical nude. Etty's masterpiece, 'The Judgment of Paris' is also part of the collection at the Lady Lever Art Gallery. The partially nude nymphs with almond-eyes, fashionable hairstyles and diaphanous drapery gives to Millais's picture a slightly salacious quality. Etty attracted disapproving ecclesiastical critical comment about the quite un-classical nature of his figures.

A second major influence upon Millais may also have been the famous painting in the National Gallery by Titian of 'Bacchus and Ariadne'. At least one figure in the background of Millais's picture seems to have been based directly on one of Titian's figures. The interconnected grouping of the figures in landscape, the emphasis given to the depiction of specific fabrics, fur and foliage is all redolant in a general sense of Titian's picture.

The passage from Dryden that fits the picture best is:

Then Cymon first his rustick Voice essay’d,
With proffer’d service to the parting Maid
To see her safe; his hand she long deny’d
But took at length,asham’d of such a Guide:
So Cymon led her home……..

Other details are also taken from Dryden’s verse including Cymon’s 'Quarter–staff; which he could ne’re forsake' and the 'Alabaster Fountain'statue seen on the far left. Dryden’s description of Cymon as a 'Fool of Nature stood with stupid Eyes and gaping mouth' and having 'an Idiot Laugh' seems to have inspired the extraordinarily inane expression that Millais gives to his face.

Despite the great facility displayed by Millais the picture cannot be considered truly successful. The figure of Cymon is oddly proportioned and there is a curious pouch-like protrusion in his leopard-skin kilt. Neither Cymon nor Iphegenia seem truly grounded on the land upon which they stand. Individual parts are excellent without the whole coalescing.

Millais’s next major work, 'Lorenzo and Isabella', (The Walker, Liverpool) marked his change to a fully-fledged Pre-Raphaelite style of painting. The parts of 'Cymon and Iphegenia' which he repainted in 1852 were also done in a more detailed Pre-Raphaelite fashion.