This Day’s Notable Aesthetic
For whatever reason that only those who study the mind could comprehend, the uncertainty of the times and the protests that seem to have become a condition of consciousness and daily life never fails to send me backwards in time to get reacquainted with what has past and what was missed. Maybe I seek a bit of nostalgia or a remembrance of what once brought comfort (for me the habits, veils, and rosaries of the nuns), or the tranquility of a world that moved in a measured stride always accompanied by the adjective, confident, that didn’t leave us inwardly shivering and outwardly wary.
In my new pursuits that pull me away from these pages, I learned not only of this painting by Sir John Everett Millais, entitled ‘The Vale of Rest’ that had the dubious distinction of shocking the Art world of 1859, (“This is the year Mr. Millais gave forth those terrible nuns in the graveyard,” sniffed one critic), but discovered a revolutionary new way of not only learning, but genuinely appreciating how art, particularly paintings, are being, not simply viewed, but experienced, in the 21st century.
A bit of background. It is said that of all the pictures that Millais created, this, ‘The Vale of Rest’, subtitled ‘Where the weary find repose’, was his favorite. Both come from Mendelssohn’s part-song ‘Ruhetal’ from Sechs Lieder, Opus 59, no.5. Millais heard his brother William singing the song and felt it suited the painting and theme perfectly.
The theme of mortality and the suggestion of the macabre is explicit. The nun on the left is digging a grave, positioned in such as way that the viewer appears to be in it alongside her, while the second nun’s rosary is adorned, not with the crucifixion, but with a skull. In the background a coffin-shaped cloud – a harbinger of death, according to Scots legend – appears in the evening sky.
A nun features in an earlier drawing, St Agnes Eve of 1854 (private collection), and according to Millais’ wife, Effie, ‘It had long been Millais’ intention to paint a picture with nuns in it.’
The idea for the picture occurred to him on honeymoon in Scotland in 1855. As Effie explains, ‘On descending the hill by Loch Awe, from Inverary, he was extremely struck with its beauty, and the coachman told us that on one of the islands were the ruins of a monastery. We imagined to ourselves the beauty of the picturesque features of the Roman Catholic religion.’
It was another three years before Millais began work on this painting. One October evening, he was so taken by the beauty of the sunset that he fetched a large canvas and set to work immediately. Following the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic of truth to nature, he painted the bulk of the picture, including the figures, in the open air.
The setting – excluding the tombstones, but including the terrace, shrubs and the wall in the background, with poplars and oak trees behind it – was Effie’s family’s garden at Bowerswell, Perth. Effie recalled, ‘The sunsets were lovely for two or three nights, and he dashed the work in, softening it afterwards in the house, making it, I thought, even less purple and gold than when he saw it in the sky. The effect lasted so short a time that he had to paint like lightning.’ The grave and gravestones were painted some months later at Kinnoull, an old churchyard in Perth.
When the painting was first exhibited in public, it was denounced for its methods, as were all the early works of the Pre-Raphaelites, and unjustly criticized for the ugliness and “frightfulness” of the figures. The kinder of the critics permitted it a certain “nobility of horror.”
As a result of the attacks, John Ruskin, the foremost art critic of his day was asked to intervene, which he did, writing a letter to The Times on behalf of the young artists. From this intervention came the meeting between Ruskin and Millais, which resulted as events often do, in the most famous sexual scandal of the day.
Ruskin had married Euphemia Chalmers Grey, daughter of a Scottish family living near Perth. Ruskin, his wife, and Millais set off together on a holiday in Scotland, and a strong attraction developed between Effie Ruskin and Millais. It came to light that Ruskin had not consummated the marriage. What is beyond our own sexually promiscuous mores to understand, was that Effie knew that something was missing from her marriage, but was so innocent she could not identify its reason.
Following an acrimonious and notorious divorce case, Effie married Millais, and in rapid succession, produced eight children. One can only imagine the woman’s ecstatic relief to learn what had been denied her. It is interesting to note that the publicly humiliated Ruskin had the generosity of spirit to continue to provide critical support for the artist.
All of what you have just read was without the direct aid of the picture. When you read about the skull on the nun’s rosary, for example, you had to scroll to the painting to view it and then resume your place in the text. Now imagine viewing “The Vale of Rest,” while simultaneously hearing more about the masterpiece John Everett Millais created. That is the simple concept of wonderment developed by smarthistory.org, a site devoted to bringing the viewer into the work, and education into the future.
Gobsmacked I am. Enthralled and enchanted, for sure. Here is how they tell it:
“In Smarthistory, we have aimed for reliable content and a delivery model that is entertaining and occasionally even playful. Our podcasts and screen-casts are spontaneous conversations about works of art where we are not afraid to disagree with each other or art history orthodoxy. We have found that the unpredictable nature of discussion is far more compelling to students, museum visitors and other informal learners than a monologue. When students listen to shifts of meaning as we seek to understand each other, we model the experience we want our visitors to have—a willingness to encounter the unfamiliar and transform it in ways that make it meaningful to them. We believe that Smarthistory is broadly applicable to our discipline and is a first step toward understanding how art history can fit into the new collaborative culture created by web 2.0 technologies.”
How perfectly wonderful the world can be sometimes.
Sir John Everett Millais, The Vale of Rest: where the weary find repose, 1858 (partially repainted 1862), oil on canvas, 40 1/2 x 68 inches (Tate Britain, London)
John Everett Millais,Portrait of the Painter, 1880,Oil on canvas
The Vale of Rest: where the weary find repose, alternate view
St. Agnes Eve,Wood engraving, 1857, John Everett Millais