Monday, October 29, 2012

John Everett Millais - Kate Perugini

signed with monogram and dated l.r.: 1880
oil on canvas
125 by 80cm., 49½ by 31½in.

Given by the artist to the sitter and her husband Charles Edward Perugini;
Sir Henry Dickens, his sale, Sotheby’s, 15 March 1967, lot 116 bought by Cyril Dickens;
C. Hawksley in 1969;

‘Overall, ‘Portrait of Mrs Perugini’ is a painting made of a friend at a deeply felt moment in her life as well as being a true depiction of an artist at an exciting time in her own career. The face that glances almost slightingly at the viewer from over her left shoulder hints teasingly at a lively personality and rich experience from behind those knowing eyes.’ (Lucinda Hawksley, Katey - The Life and Loves of Dickens’ Artist Daughter’, 2006, p.4)

In the bi-centennial anniversary year of Charles Dickens’ death, the famous and innovative portrait of his youngest surviving daughter Kate is offered for sale. It has returned from San Francisco where it was shown in the exhibition The Cult of Beauty, a glorious display of British Aestheticism from the later nineteenth century which had opened at the Victoria & Albert Museum before touring to Paris and the USA. Included in the exhibition of Millais’ portraits at London’s National Portrait Gallery in 1999, it was also prominent in the Millais retrospective at Tate Britain, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and a tour of Japanese art museums in 2008. Kate Dickens is the subject of a fascinating book by Lucinda Hawksley Katey, The Life and Loves of Dicken’s Artist Daughter, published in 2006 and now recognised as a significant historical figure in her own right, not simply the wife and daughter of famous men.

In 1850 Dickens had written one of the most famous and scathing attacks on Pre-Raphaelitism when he violently criticised Millais’ Christ in the House of his Parents (Tate). However by the mid-1850s the vitriol was forgotten and Millais and Dickens had become good friends. Millais met the writer’s daughter when she was a teenager. As the daughter of the most famous writer of his age, Kate Dickens (1839-1929) enjoyed celebrity and high profile in society. She moved with artistic circles which allowed her to explore her own painting and to meet many of the most inspirational men and women of London, Paris and Italy. Millais encouraged Kate’s painting and she became a successful portrait painter, particularly insightful when painting children. In 1859 Millais painted Kate as a woman parting with her lover on the eve of Waterloo in The Black Brunswicker (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight).  

Millais’ portrait depicts the pivotal point in Kate’s life when she married the Italian painter Carlo Eduardo (Charles Edward) Perugini, with whom she was passionately and blissfully in love. She was drawn to artistic men; her first husband was the painter Charles Collins (brother of Wilkie Collins) and she had an affair with the artist Val Prinsep. Millais and her were great friends as was Frederic Leighton through whom she she met Perugini. The wedding ceremony of Catherine Elizabeth Macready Collins and Charles Edward Perugini took place on 4 June 1874 at StPaul's Church in Wilton Place, Knightsbridge. Millais was one of only five guests at the wedding and the only nonfamily member (Kate’s own mother and Charles’ parents were not invited). Millais’ portrait was begun as a wedding gift but was not completed until 1880. It expresses the defiantly modern and sophisticated later style of Millais and also captures the intelligence and elegance of the sitter. It has an informal intimacy and charm uncluttered by peripheral, unnecessary fashionable accessories. ‘The result is a stunning, unusual portrait that captures the artist’s feelings towards a mature, intelligent, fellow artist... a sexually provocative painting, indicative of Kate’s forceful personality.’ (Ibid Hawksley, p.3) 
It is said that Kate decided upon the pose she would adopt for the picture when she walked into Millais’ studio, turned her back to the artist, looked over her left shoulder and told him that this was the way she wished to be depicted. Millais clearly agreed and the pose is both original and powerful: ‘her stance, the prominent bustle positioned near the centre of the portrait and the way in which Millais captures the sitter’s haughty self-possession are provocative in more ways than one, drawing the eye and creating questions in the viewer’s mind.’ (ibid Hawksley, p.3) Kate probably also chose the black costume – she was officially in mourning for Collins but black was also her favourite colour in which she believed she looked her best. The portrait has been compared to Sargent’s infamous portrait of Virginie Gautreau Madame X of 1884 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) but whilst the suggestiveness of Sargent’s picture
created a scandal, Millais’ eroticism was more subtle with the French-seemed gossamer black organdie of the sleeves and back revealing the golden skin beneath. ‘The black dress is exquisitely rendered, with its enticing sheer sleeves providing a welcome relief from the more funereal tones of the bodice and the rich satin of the bustle’s bow gleaming in contrast with the more sombre material of the skirt. Millais manages to make the several subtle shades of black appear as varied as a patterned silk, emphasising the femaleness of the sitter by deliberately highlighting the movement of the fabric around her corseted curves.’ (ibid Hawksley, pp.3-4) 

We are grateful to Lucinda Hawksley for her additions to this catalogue note. 

1 comment:

Goetz Kluge said...

Recently, Millais' "Isabella" drew some attention as again(?) a phallic symbol has been spotted there. Seemingly, Millais' pictorial quotes in "Christ in the House of His Parents" are too subtile to get a similar attention. This may also apply to an illustration by Henry Holiday, who quoted from Millais' painting.