Friday, December 21, 2012

Christmas Eve

Price Realized

signed with monogram and dated '1887' (lower left) 
oil on canvas 
62 x 52¾ in. (157.5 x 134 cm.) 

This chilly but romantic picture was painted late in 1887 from the west side of Murthly Castle, Perthshire, the seat of Sir Archibald Douglas Stewart, 8th Baronet of Murthly, an octogenarian who would die, without heir, three years later. The tower in the painting dates from the fifteenth-century, and the scene remains almost exactly the same today. Millais and his family had taken Birnam Hall, a substantial lodge on the Murthly estate, for the seventh year running, the artist enjoying the generous shooting and fishing rights that went with the rental of £600.

The Millais' holiday at Murthly must have been unusually late this year. J.G. Millais records in his biography of his father that 'winter was already casting her mantle over the Northern hills' when the picture was started, and that it received its 'final touches' on Christmas Eve itself - hence the title. This presumably implies that the family spent Christmas at Murthly, perhaps returning to London in the New Year.

The picture is a fine example of Millais' late Scottish landscapes, of which he painted twenty-one in the last twenty-six years of his life. Nearly all are large, restricted in tone, and confined in subject matter to scenes he encountered during his autumn holidays on the banks of the River Tay. Although Millais combined their execution with sport, they represented a departure of considerable significance, unparalleled in the careers of any other major late Victorian artist.

Long overlooked or even disparaged, this aspect of Millais' work was dramatically re-assessed in the exhibition mounted by Tate Britain in 2007, in which Christmas Eve and eleven other examples were shown. The catalogue speaks of them as 'hauntingly elegiac images', in which the artist evoked a harsh, bleak and melancholy world, almost void of human life and in stark contrast to the social whirl of London which provided the context for his work during the rest of the year.

One of these pictures, Dew-Drenched Furze (1889-90; Tate Britain), was included in the exhibition Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910 held at the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, July-October 2012 (cat. p. 89, fig. 62) and previously seen at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

J.G. Millais recounts how when painting Christmas Eve the artist left the picture overnight in a painting hut in the grounds of Murthly Castle, its wet face turned to the wall. During the night there was a violent snowstorm, and Millais was convinced that in the morning he would find both hut and picture blown away. To his delight, however, he found the hut still standing. Braving the elements, the village carpenter, who had built it, had come down at midnight to make it secure.

M.H. Spielmann described the picture as 'extremely effective, if somewhat theatrical...There is a touch of poetry in the air, as the setting sun lights up the windows of the castle'. A sense of romance is also created by the cold winter light and the footprints and cart-tracks in the snow, hinting at a recent human presence. Helpful, too, is Millais, choice of a highly evocative title, even if it was suggested by the date on which the picture received its 'final touches'.

Studies for the jackdaws in the foreground are in the collection of the Royal Academy of Arts, London.

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