Friday, October 28, 2011

John Everett Millais - A Somnambulist auction sale

Sold for £74,400 inclusive of Buyer's Premium

igned with monogram and dated '1871' (lower left)
oil on canvas
154 x 91cm (60 5/8 x 35 13/16in).

Purchased from the artist by Thomas Agnew & Sons, London, 4 April 1871, £1000
Richard Johnson, 9 May 1871, purachased from above
Mrs Richard Johnson, 1887
R. J. Walker sale, Christie's, London, 11 June 1928, lot 39, purchased Weekes, 28 guineas
Anonymous sale, Sotheby's, London, 19 November 1969, lot 166
Bolton Museum & Art Gallery, purchased from above for £400

London, Royal Academy, 1871, no. 313
Manchester, Royal Jubilee Exhibition (Fine Art Section), 1887, no. 470
London, Tate Britain; Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum; Fukuoka, Kitakyushu Municipal Museum of Art; Tokyo, Bunkamura Museum of Art, Millais, 2007-2008, no. 95

Walter Armstrong, Sir John Millais, Royal Academician. His Life and Work, Art Annual (Christmas number of the Art-Journal), 1885, p. 17
Marion H. Spielmann, Millais and His Works, Edinburgh and London, 1898, p. 172, no. 134
John Guille Millais, The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais, President of the Royal Academy London, 1899, volume II, p. 475

A young woman in a nightgown, her hair down and her feet bare, sleepwalks along the top of a cliff, perilously close to the edge. She carries a brass candlestick in which the candle has just gone out, making the scene even darker and more nerve-wracking, than it was a moment ago. Now her path is lit only by moonlight. She moves forward unaware of the danger, on her face the fixed, wide-eyed stare of the somnambulist.

Many of Millais's paintings show moments of drama but this scene, in which certain death is literally just a step away, is unusually immediate and intense. In all likelihood he derived the subject from the plot of an opera, Bellini's La Sonnambula, a complicated romantic tale set in a village in Switzerland. In the opera's final scene the heroine, Amina, sleepwalks across a high and dangerously unstable mill bridge, grief-stricken at being unjustly rebuffed by Elvino, to whom she is betrothed. It was a previous episode of sleepwalking that caused the misunderstanding between the lovers, Amina having wandered into the room of another man, Count Rodolfo, at the village inn. In the climax, Amina reaches the other side of the mill bridge safely and awakens in the arms of Elvino, who now realizes that she is blameless. It would be nothing new for Millais to draw upon such a source for the basic scenario of a painting. He was a music enthusiast who counted among his friends some of the leading composers and performers of his day, including Arthur Sullivan. He loved the opera and had used operatic plots – a more original choice than, say, the scenes from Shakespeare that were such a staple of Victorian painting -- for the subjects of some of his minutely detailed Pre-Raphaelite paintings of the 1850s: A Huguenot is based on Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots; The Proscribed Royalist, 1651 on Bellini's I Puritani; and L'Enfant du Régiment on Donizetti's La Figlia del Reggimento.

As Alison Smith pointed out in the catalogue of the Millais exhibition of 2007-2008, the figure in A Somnambulist recalls J. A. M. Whistler's Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (National Gallery of Art, Washington). Among Millais's artist contemporaries, there was none whose career he followed with a keener eye, or whose work he acknowledged more openly in his own, than Whistler. He especially admired The White Girl. As Whistler's model for the painting, Joanna Heffernan, wrote in a letter: "Some stupid painters don't understand it at all while Millais for instance thinks it spleandid [sic] more like Titian and those old swells than anything he [h]as seen." Millais had already painted an artistic response to The White Girl in the form of a portrait, his Nina Lehmann of 1868-69. A Somnambulist represents a similar kind of homage to Whistler, this time in narrative mode.

It is an homage that contains an element of correction, however. Though appreciating the beauty of Whistler's color and brushwork, Millais replaced the uncomfortable suggestions of a sexual encounter in the American artist's painting with a more straightforward, in a sense a more English, kind of narrative. It is as though he was attracted to the strangely staring female face in The White Girl and countless other paintings by Whistler and his fellow painters of the Aesthetic Movement, but when it came to making his own white girl he preferred to give the strange stare an explanation – somnambulism, that anyone could understand.

Millais may have based the coastal view in the background on the cliffs near Budleigh Salterton in Devon, where he made sketches in May-June 1869 in preparation for his painting of The Boyhood of Raleigh. Landscape was very much on his mind at this time. A Somnambulist was to make its debut in 1871, at the same Royal Academy exhibition as Chill October, the first of the large, bleak landscapes that were to punctuate the rest of his career. Alison Smith suggests that the landscape background of A Somnambulist may be another instance of Millais paying homage to Whistler, in particular to the series of night scenes he called Nocturnes. This may be the case, although Whistler had only recently begun the series and there is no certainty that Millais would yet have seen any of them.

At the time he painted A Somnambulist, Millais was 41 years old and at the height of his powers. He was popular with the public and collectors alike, prosperous, and moving in prestigious circles. On March 30, 1871, when A Somnambulist was probably still on the easel, he received the Prince and Princess of Wales on a visit to his studio. No doubt he would have shown them all the paintings he was preparing for the Royal Academy exhibition that year: A Somnambulist and Chill October; a modern-life love drama entitled Yes or No?; a large biblical subject, Victory O Lord!; and a portrait of the classical historian George Grote. His range of subject-matter was remarkable, and yet "a Millais" was instantly recognizable from its broad, Old-Masterly technique, so different from the meticulous fact-recording of his earlier, Pre-Raphaelite style. On May 13, 1871, Vanity Fair published a caricature of him entitled A converted pre-Raphaelite.

Today A Somnambulist strikes a fascinating modern chord, especially considering the interest in altered states of consciousness among later artists such as Edvard Munch or the Surrealists. In Victorian England, some people worried that there was something unworthy, maybe even unseemly, about the very subject of a woman dressed for bed. The critics picked up on this, but admired the work nonetheless. "The realism of the night-dress and candlestick affords an easy theme for carping," wrote The Times. "But it is impossible to contest the grace of the figure or the power with which the painter has given the effect of eyes still wide open, though not seeing, and the effect of moonlight and scattered coast lights" (29 April 1871, p. 12). Writing in the Athenaeum, Millais's old Pre-Raphaelite comrade-in-arms F. G. Stephens was similarly won over despite himself: "As a subject, this is, of course, much below the painter's powers; yet so fine is its execution, so admirable is the expression, so pathetic, as indeed the artist could not avoid making it, so complete is the depicting of Nature, and so eminently dramatic, however melo-dramatic, is the conception of the whole, that while we are hesitating to approve the picture, its charms steal our verdict" (29 April 1871, p. 531).

We are grateful to Malcolm Warner for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.

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