Ruskin distinctly believed that the expression of art can only be truthful if it remained a statement “of any fact of nature” to imply, the rather anachronistic view that art was meant to simply capture nature as provided by providence. Yet, his boldness did not end there, as in his Modern Painters he hauntingly argued that all art which bases its elements on the natural world, through detailed and thoughtful capturing, is in itself superior due to its ability to express emotions of truth rather than ‘fallacious’ impressions. This rather abstracted definition, seems to dwell into overly theoretical altercations but it has been proven to be expressed fiercely in the works of the early Pre-Raphelites. This materialization, of course, was not a definite and linear expression of ‘truth’ by both Ruskin and other Pre-Raphaelite masters. In fact, although Millais remained truthful in his early work to the expression of nature, he deviated significantly from Ruskin’s theoretical belief in the employment of ‘Godliness’ and spirituality. It is for this reason why the only way to understand the concept of ‘truth of nature’ is to analyze the nature of the ‘truth’ expressed by Ruskin and Millais, as although they were in some instances of similarity, they were also quite distinct from one another. One may argue that ‘truth to nature’, in its pure superficial basis was upheld by both men, yet the ideas which it was meant to express differed entirely.
Although the ‘truth to nature’ was a concept that was employed thoroughly by the Pre-Raphaelites, as defined by Ruskin, John Everett Millais only employed it in the realm of superficial aesthetics and physical expression of nature. Thus, much of Ruskin’s argument that the expression of nature, rather than its imitation, being a step closer to spirituality and Godliness is defunct in much of Millais’ Vale of Rest. In essence, Millais remained loyal to the detailed articulation of nature, but his presentation did not ultimately express Ruskin’s theory of purity, but in fact the opposite which seems to be a rather perverse and macabre view of the natural world. Interestingly, Millais attends to the dichotomy of nature to express that the natural world is not merely one of beauty, but also one of death, sex and sin. Thus, he brilliantly expands on Ruskin’s dogma of a singular expression of nature, and the truth found within it thorough “fidelity”. In fact, it seems that Millais believed quite rationally that if an artist remains truthful to nature, he will not only discover perfection but also the bold and unseemliness imperfection of the world. The Vale of Rest very being seems to been Millais’ last statement of the contempt of purity and truth through nature, before he switched to more mainstream artistry. Interestingly, this piece seems to be a bold and fearless refutation of Ruskin’s ideals but not the use of his artistic method, preached continuously throughout his career. Millais was far more critical of religion, more specifically the Catholic Church, which is why he presented ‘nature’ as medium of critique. It is,thus, of great importance to understand that both men’s love of nature was undoubtedly very much alike, yet what nature in art meant to both was very much at odds. This paper also deals quite profusely with the reasons this shift of ideology might have occurred, both at a personal and abstract level, as well as raise significant questions of the nature of truth, and the ways the perceived it.What was the historical atmosphere of England in the 1850’s that drove both individuals to hold such stark believes in the relationship of nature and God? And more importantly, why did Ruskin and Millais have such strong ideals about nature, all the while their definitions of spirituality were contrasted so strongly?
Millais’ Vale of Rest, painted in 1858, the “year Mr. Millais gave forth those two terrible nuns” as Ruskin ostentatiously referred to the piece, is his last work in the Pre-Rapahelite fashion and also one of the most obscure from that period. If “art is an expressive and noble language” as Ruskin refers to it, than this is most true in Millais’ work. Its importance is staggering in understanding that, in fact, Millais perceived nature far differently from Ruskin’s idealization. This, of course, is best exhibited by the piece itself. Upon first glance of Vale of Rest, found within Appendix 1, the viewer can see two Catholic nuns within the setting of a rather ominous cemetery during a sunset. The first is resting and staring at the viewer, while the second is crudely digging a grave. Yet, this simple image is curiously filled with symbolism, iconography and expressive details from content to form , and from color to line, all of which denote the bicipital attributes of nature and religiosity, but cancel out the ultimate “expression of truth”, in Ruskin’s eyes, as something perfectly beautiful. Thus, Vale of Rest is a painting of ‘contrast’ and ‘difference’, similar to the ideologies of Ruskin and Millais. The effective setting of the cemetery with the irregular positioning of the nuns, in contrast to the natural depiction of forestry is in itself a rather odd fabrication, which ultimately expresses the theme of life and death distinctly, but also that of pain and as Pointon implies, consummation. If one gazes upon the Vale of Rest objectively, the detail of the piece is almost prodigious, and the contrast between the macabre figures of the two women against the natural backdrop signifies the amalgamation and inescapable truth of life, which is death. This stark contrast of perceived and real beauty aids to bring out the reality of the situation through both bold and subtle elements of expression. Although the very detail of the piece is quite similar to that of another Pre-Raphaelite work, as Millais’ own Isabella, there is a rather bold-far less subtle than his previous work- undertone of cynical criticism of religion, and above all the way in which life is viewed without the stark sharpness of mortality. It is almost as Millais was daringly going against Ruskin and his preaching about how artistic modernity was found in the landscapes of humanity, rather than within humanity itself, which seemed to be what Millais inferred. Thus, Millais brought back the human element into art and exhibited it as being one with nature. It seems that he became greatly consumed by Ruskin’s incessant preaching on the need of capturing pure ‘facts’ simply to depict God, and reversed the mechanical use of facts to depict criticism and doubt. Thus, in the Vale of Rest, the “manifestation of God” is not found once in the “herbage” of the scene but rather in the atypical representation of ‘religious life’ through all the elements of content, and in fact they seem to be all pointing towards “ideas of power” rather than those of mere “truth”. It is for this reason why the setting forces the viewer to question the position of the two Catholic nuns quite vigorously.
The first nun invokes in the reader questionable analysis of broader religiosity and the true position of nature, and in fact breaks down the barriers of convention in both the beauty of nature, and purity of religion. Her rather horrid and striking stare of what seems to be a sort of agony or distress, perhaps from years of service, creates a sense that the idealized views of nuns no longer apply in this case. It is almost as the nun suffers from an emotional affliction which is portrayed through her eyes, and is meant to invoke in the reader a sense of emphatic reactions, perhaps with her desperation. However, the stare also depicts a certain amount of demand of help, or perhaps even the need to be saved from her current position of emotional isolation and detraction, and even from her life of perceived purity. The odd combination of her young face and arms signify a certain form of aloofness and seclusion not only from her current environment but also from herself. Overall, it seems that while she is contemplating God, mortality, death and life she is also perhaps cynical of all these elements as being certain principles of religion, but rather the realities of nature. This critique, or rather cynical view of the world is nowhere to be found in Ruskin’s incessant idealisations about the creation and functions of art. In fact, death and mortality are rarely mentioned in all the volumes of Modern Painters. Yet, interestingly the expression of power through emotion is one of the principal themes of his ideology. The same very power expressed by the nun herself.
The fact that the same nun is seated on a gravestone implies the implications of death and mortality, which only help to perpetuate her desperation and dejection, and again lead to the question of where God exists in nature, and more precisely, in human nature. The gravestone itself implies a certain amount of bitter awe which essentially makes Ruskin’s ideals of landscapes and vegetation as totally devoid of reality. What can better exhibit the facts of nature, than a gravestone placed upon the natural setting? The gravestone is no different from the ones set in the background all pointing awkwardly at the first nun- it is almost at they too are staring at the nun while she stares at the viewers. Moreover, the nun is holding a rather crude rosary with a small skull attached upon it, which in itself is a depiction of her own mortality but also that of the viewer. This of course leads to the question of who they are burying, which of course seems entirely irrelevant in the current circumstances but again greatest the mood of restlessness and tension which is oddly collided with an almost tranquil representation of the preparation of a new grave. Critics have implied that, in essence, this is meant to force the viewer to contemplate their own mortality, yet it seems that the main questions which arise, from this amalgamation of symbols, is whether God has any distinctive part in one’s death, and ultimately in one’s life. It is rather shallow to imply that the main theme is that of death, when it is quite obvious it is that of breaking down visible and invisible barriers of the nature of society, and even of the definition of what it means to be natural. Even if this was done at the expense of true and pure expression there are far too many bold social issues in Vale of Rest, than Ruskin would have found comfortable.
The second nun who seems to be uncovered, almost ‘naked’, and is digging a grave for ‘death ‘is a rather crude representation of the immoral attributes of religion, but also the breaking of distinct social 19th century boundaries. She is terribly uncovered for a 19th that Millais was abolishing a few social and religious taboos in this courageous representation. The reason for this is because she is shown to be engaged in manual labor, not only with her muscles exposed to the viewer but also engaging in one of the most poorly viewed labor of dig-keeping. This rough blending of two opposing worlds creates a beautiful representation of the reality of truth, which destroys the traditional views of nuns as pure, almost angelic figures, deprived from all earthly sin. Again, Millais has been able to reintroduce the human element in Vale of Rest, by portraying the nun in the elements and toils of industrious labor. This is further perpetuated by the linear asperity of her clothing, especially her veil, but also by the definition of her veins which seem to take on the same qualities. Her surrounding is entirely filled by earth, a representation of the most natural element in the human universe, yet her own labor is that of death. This woman is a rather crude representation of reality, and definitely nature in the manner in which Ruskin did not entirely tend to. It is almost as the poetic qualities preached by the Pre-Raphaelites have disappeared into a bold statement of simple lines, similar to haiku poetry. Yet these lines have more to say about the condition in which humans live in, and more precisely the presence of women in the societal structure.
The nun who engages in manual labor and is exposed ever so slightly, is a distinct refutation of the position of women and the roles of gender on Millais’ part. Bernstein proclaims, brilliantly, that the Vale of Rest, in itself hides attenuate modes of eroticism within the work, in order to contrast the ‘pure’ image of the Catholic Church, and to highlight the distinct exploitation and subjugation of women in a broader sense. In essence, the fact that the nun performs incongruous labor and rolls up her sleeves, is also a definition of the empowerment of women as independent figures within the landscape. The reason this is important is because it interestingly contrasts with the fact that both women are walled in the cemetery, within a confined space, which promotes the idea that although they are isolated they still strive to assert their power. The same power of artistry and individuality that Ruskin himself advocates for in the chapter “Of Ideas of Power” in Modern Painters. Of course, both women together, in their contradiction of presence and form, almost an antithesis, exhibit the same ideal.
The contrast between the two women also creates a depiction between perversity, irregularity and divergence to that of cleanliness, godliness and purity. The first striking difference is the women’s clothing in which one is depicted as clean and the other is begrimed with the dirt of nature. The first woman is in fact sitting down in solemn thought and most likely lost in her gaze of the viewer as the is ‘drowning’ in thought, while the other is specifically attentive to her labor, and to her own localized reality. And, perhaps, the most arresting difference between the two women is their veils. The first woman’s veil is extremely clean, bright, cleansed, and untouched by nature, while the other nun’s is rather cruddy, shuffled and slid back behind her. It is important to note that Ruskin himself believed that the “pure white” was superior in the expression of good than that of dirtier colors. Thus, here we have a representation of contrast, to simply imply the hypocrisy of the Church, but also that of spirituality and normative assemblages accompanied by it. While one woman signifies some form of false purity, the other is entangled in labor and the realities of life. Yet, the woman who is pure and clean is also embroiled quite fiercely in her own mental and emotional labor. Millais, indeed was a “conscientious realist” as described by Peter, due to the fact of his ability to bring out taboos which in fact were popularly known an realized but were skillfully perceived as hidden only to perpetuate Victorian ethics and ‘rationality’. It is almost ironical as it seems Millais mocks Ruskin, for not only expressing nature itself, but the nature of Godliness relevant to the human experience. This can be seen quite amply in the use of various symbolism in the painting.
Millais’ thoughtful and provocative use of symbolism in this piece promotes the questionable aspect of God and his role in mortality, as well as her/his cogent relativity to nature. This is again done to create a symmetrical contrast within the painting. The most tenacious symbolism, of course, is the long yellow rosary with an attached skull. Yet, what makes this interesting is the fact that the color is perfectly matched with that of the corona of flowers in the right bottom of the painting, right next to the gravestone upon which the first nun is sitting. Also on the same side of the paining dubious, and oddly formed gravestones are all placed to face the nun which is sitting down. Upon first glance, one may ask why so much death on one side? The right side of the painting where the first nun is sitting is a representation of the ‘idea’ of death, mortality, God- in essence the ideology and theory that involves death. On the other hand, the left side is merely a pure and natural representation of death itself, exactly what Ruskin asked for in his Modern Painters. Thus this contrast is constructed again to promote the bicipital nature of all things. The reason symbols play such an important part in this is due to the fact they are the factors which create the division of ideas both aesthetically and theoretically. Over this scene of contrast, lies small, but distinguishable presence of a chapel and cross, that seems to kindly overlook this scene. Whether Millais infused this element to perpetuate his theme of religion or that of power, remains quite controversial, yet it is easily identifiable as an expression of “power” as argued by Ruskin, however not in the conventional method. This is further perpetuated by the presence of the stunning sunset which covers the sky. Overall, the symbols in this painting allude to elements of disparity, but also an antipodal look at the way nature is divided and compared. However, these elements of contrast and divergence are not only present in the contents of this painting but also in its aesthetic qualities and stylistic fashions. In these instances, Millais did remain true, in part, to the qualities of a the Pre-Raphaelites.
The style of this piece is truly exquisite and an alluring definition of the aesthetic qualities of the Pre-Raphaelite fashion which seems to have dwelled quite abundantly within the definiteness of intense detail. Millais’ last great attribute, which adhered to the creed of the Pre-Raphaelite, was that of well defined aesthetics. This can be seen in the work itself, specifically in the great detail of the ‘herbifrage’, the grass and tall dark trees, but also by the lovely faces of the women. It is without a doubt, that Millais had followed the old fashioned unwritten law of first painting the background in ‘plein air’ and later using models in a studio to finish his work, similar to other Pre-Raphaelite masters such as Hunt. Even though, there are no historical accounts of Millais using models, it is most likely so if one looks at his past history of paintings. Whether this was the case or not, the important thing remains that again even in style the contrast is again exhibited subtly. On one hand Millais remained loyal to the aesthetic qualities of the Brotherhood, yet on the other hand none of the ideals of Godliness are expressed in a positive light. It is without a doubt that Millais never once framed away from the naturalism and realism expressed by his style, certainly he never created anything similar to Rossetti’s “quatracento” art, where God and religion remain the principal themes. This is undoubtedly the case within this piece whose abundance of dark, yet sublime colors can even be compared to Millais’ Ophelia.
It is true that the Pre-Raphaelites favored color as one of the most intrinsic qualities of art and painting, and one of the most important elements of definition and form. This is dully exhibited in Vale of Rest, where colors converse together to form an amalgamation of beautiful mismatches and coincidental departures from one another. For instance, the black and white veils of the two white nuns form a pleasing disparity which go together beautifully. The same can be said for the dark colors of the background trees against the beautifully lit, yet shallow, sunset sky. Finally, the same contrast can be seen between the earth mounted around the grave and the pale green grass that inhabits the cemetery. It is almost as these contradictions express intangible ideas, very much similar to the contrasting nature of God. For instance, among the aphotic coloring of the ground the yellow corona of flowers is situated to catch the readers view by virtue of the tenacity of its color. It is almost as Millais was implying that the paradox of Godliness cannot be escaped, similar to the distinct coloring of the world we inhabit. Behind the labouring nun there is a small spot of red color which is most likely a flower, perhaps a poppy. This rather small and inconspicuous element presents the other duality of death which is passion and Romanization. Perhaps the reason Millais expressed this symbol in such a miniscule fashion is to acknowledge the presence of passion in death, but downplay it as something far to idealized, especially in his world of realism. Of course, Ruskin’s own ideas of color were far more simplistic, and contrived in the conventions of the “old masters”. In fact, he argues in detail that the best presentation of color in the expression of nature occurs in the well defined “discrepancy of the attainable brilliancy between color and light”. In other words, Ruskin is implying that color’s main function is to better mimic the natural world, especially in the expression of appropriate lighting and form.
Ultimately, the lines, shapes and forms found within this piece are indicative of Millais’ own truth to the aesthetic precepts perpetuated by Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites, but again they are meant express drastically different ideas. Many of the shapes, and forms, as well as contours follow the symmetrically inclusive elements of the natural world. Specifically, the gravestones are diametrically placed to follow the contours of the fabricated landscape of the cemetery. This illusion causes the viewer to first set her gaze upon the nun who is solemnly sitting, as the gravestones force ones eyes into that direction which is finalized by her own puncturing stare. These instances of shapes and forms can also be found in the vertical asymmetry of the painting itself. Interestingly the use of lines upon the trees which direct upwards almost as pointing towards heaven can only be found on the left side of the painting. On the other hand, the right side of the painting only holds trees which point horizontally or towards the ground. This contrast is also promoted by the fact that the women on the left is standing vertically, while the one on the right is in fact sitting down in a horizontal manner. It would not be bold to say that Millais was trying to infer that Godliness can only come out of ones labor as a human, rather than ones observation of the natural world. In other words, the natural world is not merely the only aspect of God that played such an integral part in most of the Pre-Raphalites’ work. The reason form plays such important aspect in this work is because it gives definition to the stark differences in color. In Ruskin’s own view to neglect form over color is to ultimately “neglect a greater truth for a lesser one”.
It is very difficult to understand the complex nature of Vale of Rest, yet one thing is certain: Millais deceptively named this piece to literally denote a valley of peace, in order to highlight the disparity between real perception of God/Nature and Ruskin’s idealization of them. It is almost certain that there are very few instances within this work where the idea of peace and rest are actually exemplified. One of them being the admirable sunset in the background. However, most of the painting sets a mood and tone of tension and even constriction. As the critics at the institution of Tate imply that the name of this piece refers to a certain quality of hope, despite the dreadful themes it deals with. This cannot be further away from the truth, specifically as ‘Rest’ can easily be substituted with ‘Death’ in complete accordance with the issues explored in the work. However, if the piece would have been called the Vale of Death, it would have not had the same effect of contradiction, and it certainly would have not had the same awe of abruptness upon the viewer. The name itself of course is only a minuscule part in the larger context of the narrative of Vale of Rest. The culmination of this thorough analysis is of course meaningless if it is not properly placed within the context of actual events in Millais and Ruskin’s lives, as well as the broader events that developed in England in the late 1850’s.
Millais’ abrupt deviation from Ruskin’s principles of nature and artistry, something which had influenced him greatly in his early life and work, can easily be attributed to their acrid and sour relationship which had developed due to personal problems between the two individuals. In essence, Ruskin’s wife, Effie, fell in love with Millais while she modeled for him and more precisely while their trip at Glenfield, where he produced the most famous portrait of Ruskin by the waterfall, in 1853. Effie had left Ruskin the following year and married Millais, on the grounds that her marriage was not consummated. Whatever the cause might have been the importance of this lies in the fact that Ruskin no longer continued to positively critique Millais, the way he had done in the years prior, yet he continued to support Hunt and Rossetti with his generous philanthropy. In fact, when Vale of Rest was duly exhibited by the Royal Academy in 1859, Ruskin mention in his notes about the piece that” the beholder is considerably offended at first sight of this picture”. It is interesting to see, that after Millais’ marriage to Effie his painting began to change from the detailed instances of Pre-Raphaelitism to the broad and general blandness of the mainstream. This can easily be seen from 1856 onwards, and certainly within Vale of Rest in 1858 which represented a stepping stone in this transition. Although some may argue that there is truly no difference between Millais’ Christ in The House of His Parents(1850) and Vale of Rest in terms of spiritual connotations, and thus Millais had always been consistent in his critical expression and his painting, they are undoubtedly wrong. The differences can be found in the boldness of each of these paintings, as assuredly the latter is far more direct that the former, and also in the subtle changes in aesthetic qualities. All in all, there is very little historical data on the exactness of the relationship between these men. However one thing remains concrete, before Effie had entered the picture, Ruskin and Millais seemed to be endowed in some sort of casual friendship, prior to 1853, during the height of the fame and notoriety of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Although it would be far to bold to suggest that Ruskin and Millais’ falling out was solely responsible from the latter’s shift from the spiritual principles of ‘truth to nature’, it would also be wrong to negate its part. But even so, to understand the complexities of both men, one must analyze the world they inhabited, the manner in which they both viewed it, and more importantly the way they expressed it in their work.
Ruskin and Millais both lived within the confines of the Victorian Age, and they both reacted differently to the vast social and cultural changes that swept the English nation, but also at the immovable conventions of religion and sex Millais was enthused with the criticism of modern and old narratives of purity and love as well as that of the framework of religion.. On the other hand Ruskin became entangled in the theoretical intellectualism of morality, purity and cleanliness that were defining to the Victorian Age. Both men loved nature, and sought after it in order to escape from the terrifying expansion of urbanism and early forms of industrialization within the city, which is why they took trips in the countryside together. Yet, their views on spirituality seemed to diverge methodically, and more importantly it seems that both men found distinctly different things within nature. Millais was far more of a realist, and one may argue that his work can be described as bout of proto-social realism that took shape decades later. Whatever the case, Ruskin, on the other hand was a man who lived in a world of idealisations and perceptions. His view of nature seemed to dwell within the realm of intense theoretical structuring, which might be one of the reasons why he equated God to nature with such tenacity. However, the reason might even be simpler than that:Ruskin seemed to be a product of his time. He was a devout Victorian, well entangled with Christian ‘morality’ and this can be exhibited even in his later years as a lecturer, where the topic of God appears and reappears consistently. Millais, however, did not live such a spiritual life, but that of a cliche artist. It would not be wrong to suggest, thus, that Ruskin was a far more conservative and dogmatic character than Millais himself. . Yet, the only way to understand Millais’s views on religion, in contrast to the idealized Victorian and Protestant concepts put forth by Ruskin, is to understand his specific position on Catholicism. Millais produced the Vale of Rest during the backlash of the Catholic Emancipation in England which had granted the civil freedom of practicing Catholicism freely, yet it seems that this is not the first time he has dealt with the issue of Catholicism so precariously.In his 1852 A Huguenot, he portrayed the forbidden love of a Roman Catholic woman and Protestant boy. Within this piece Millais again criticizes the dogmatism presented within Catholicism and the incessant contradictions that is harbored, as well as that of Protestantism. The issue of religion became increasingly important among his “clique”, especially as the artist’s lifestyle was changing in the eyes of society, and that of the artistic community.
Overall, Millais deviated away from the idyllic and pastoral views held by Ruskin in terms of what nature expressed, but he held true to the superficial qualities of expressing it in his art. The reason the analysis of Milais and Ruskin is important is because it raises questions of what the concept of ‘truth to nature’ truly meant to them, and more importantly how it defined their own work. It is apparent that both Millais and Ruskin perceived nature in vastly different fashions, yet their ideas converged at the point of the mechanics of aesthetics. The reason for this is simply due to the fact that Ruskin was essentially criticizing art, while Millais was criticizing the society which Ruskin was apart of. In other words, Ruskin was a theoretician of art, and Millais was simply an artist. Yet, it is interesting to see how both of them, elements of the world of art, understood the expression of nature through their own mediums of knowledge. It is without a doubt that, as Wilcox argues, Ruskin played a substantial role in influencing many artists and their art yet Millais fell out of this spectrum of influence quite harshly because of the problems between the two individuals. The Vale of Rest is thus a direct confutation of nature as an expression of purity, as well as an inference to the fact that the portrayal of the natural world in the most detailed fashion did not necessarily mean a closer link to God and truth.
By: Milad Doroudian
The author is a history student at the University of British Columbia and a writer. He has dedicated much of his time researching the Jewish Community of Jassy, as well as that of Romania. He is currently working on his book The Jassy Pogrom.
Published in The Art of Polemics, Issue 2, on Sept 9th, 2014.