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John Everett Millais's Christ in the house of his parents : a Pre-Raphaelite religious image in the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1850 Kerr, Deborah Mary

Abstract

In 1850, John Everett Millais showed an untitled depiction of the Holy Family in London's Royal Academy Exhibition. This investigation focusses upon Millais's work, which was subsequently titled Christ in the House of his Parents, and upon the largely negative response of the ten journals which reviewed it. Millais belonged to a group called the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which, discontented with the idealized High Renaissance style favoured by the Academy, attempted to create a new form of art. Central to this endeavour, and characteristic of Christ in the House of his Parents, was a medievalizing style and a minutely detailed naturalism. It is most likely that Millais hoped his work would be well-received, since both medievalism and naturalism were already established in the English art world. Naturalism appealed mainly to middle-class art patrons, and medievalism, too, had found a public. Where Millais did deviate from the norm was in combining naturalism and medievalism with religious subject matter, and here he made a crucial error, insofar as pleasing his public was concerned. While dissatisfaction with Academic art was widespread, particularly among the middle classes, this was superseded, when religious imagery was involved, by a firm loyalty to Academic idealizing conventions. As a result, Millais's particularized figures were perceived as ugly, and some journals even linked them with the urban poor. Ultimately, this response was tied to their fear of the poor, and to their rejection of the liberal haute bourgeois philosophy which had originally shaped the Poor Laws, in 1834. Millais's medievalism was widely held to be antithetical to progress. Critics from all positions on the class and political spectrum hastened to assert their belief in progress, whether in the arts or in the sciences, and to castigate Millais for the apparent retrogressiveness of his picture. Only one journal, The Guardian, departed from the above pattern and expressed approval for the work. Significantly, it did not equate medievalism with retrogression, and it had no fear of the poor to be activated by Millais's particularized figures. Nonetheless, it experienced difficulty with the painting's naturalism, since, like the hostile periodicals, it too subscribed to the idealizing conventions of the Academy. Ironically, it was only when Millais finally abandoned his medievalism, and avoided religious subject matter entirely, that he began to experience some of the critical and popular acclaim which he evidently hoped would be accorded to Christ in the House of his Parents.

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