The Blind Girl. Painting by Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais
15th November 2015
I'd like to share with you one of my favourite works by John Everett Millais (1829–1896). Painted in 1856, it is entitled The Blind Girl. Click on the image to get a really high resolution version. It might take a time to load, but it’s worth it.
Click to enlarge.
Millais was one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of young artists and poets who came to prominence in the mid 19th century. As with so many Pre-Raph’ paintings, The Blind Girl is not only a work of beauty, but also one that remains to this day widely open to interpretation. What exactly is taking place? And what ‘message,’ if any, does the painter wish to convey? As so often when viewing a work of great art, the answers vary. Everyone will bring something different to the table, different observations and interpretations. Here are mine …
Millais has painted a poignant scene, one of charm yet also of pathos. We are looking at a moment shortly after a shower of rain. Two people, a young woman and a girl are seated on the banks of a stream. One is partially reclining in the lap of the other. The presence of double rainbow in the background and the look of excited observation by the smaller of the two girls, suggests that the shower has just finished. She has been taking shelter under the other’s shawl. It is one of those golden moments in Spring. We know it is Spring by the Forget-me-Nots, lower left. And there are lambs in the fields. The sun has burst through the clouds and the landscape is suddenly illuminated with a glorious radiance of energy and sparkling light.
Millais photographed by (George) Herbert Watkins.
All is not entirely well, however, in this seemingly idyllic scene. The young woman with the accordion resting in her lap is blind. We know this by the tiny label around her neck ‘Pity the Blind.’ This also suggests, along with the presence of her humble clothing, that she might be an itinerant musician or beggar.
Detail showing the label.
She cannot see the rainbow that has captured the attention of her younger friend or sister. Her senses are all of touch, of material things. Her hand is clasping that of her companion, her fingers upon the blades of grass at her side. She appears intent, focused on her inner experience, aware perhaps of the moisture in the air and the warmth from the sun. But, for all that, she remains blind. She cannot perceive directly the glorious light that surrounds her.
The intriguing thing about Pre-Raphaelite art, and why so many of us love it, is its multi-dimensional nature. There are underlying themes and ideas to ponder beyond what we see on the surface. We can admire the technical brilliance, the composition, the vibrant palette. But here, when we are urged to ‘Pity the Blind,’ we could perhaps also ponder the benighted state of those who have become ‘lost to the light’ – that is, the light of the spirit.
Millais and Christian Allegory
Now, whether we are believers or not, the fact is that the 19th Century was a very different place to our own times. It possessed a very different intellectual landscape. For a creative person of the Victorian age, the themes of Romanticism and Gothic Revivalism came together to form an all-persuasive philosophy. In part, this was a reaction against the Industrial Revolution, a period in which many of the old, secure ways of rural life and the traditional structures of community and of the Church were being eroded. And already Victorian society was thought to have lost its way, to have become ‘blinded’ by materialism and greed.
The straying sheep in the background, often to be detected in Pre-Raphaelite landscapes, remind us of this sense of loss - sheep being symbolic of ‘ the flock’ or congregation. A nostalgia for an ideal, bygone age of chivalry and spiritual harmony was being expressed. An age in which the arts and crafts once took precedence in peoples' lives rather than commerce and machines. This reaction was prevalent across all genre. It was central to the work of the influential designer and architect Augustus Pugin, or that of the poet Tennyson, the novels of the Brontes or in the parallel universe of classical music, from Brahms to Wagner, and even our own Edward Elgar. The 'Gothic' in the arts, and its accompanying High Church Christian symbolism, was the vehicle by which they travelled.
One of the enduring and universal themes of the Pre-Raphaelites, and those who followed or emulated them, was Hope. And this painting is certainly no exception. All is not lost for the Blind Girl. Despite her affliction, she has the guiding spirit of her young friend, who can see the rainbow - that eternal symbol of redemption. Our compassion for her plight is also a sign of our own potential. The hope for humanity as a whole. Upon the blind girl’s shawl, meanwhile, a butterfly has just settled. The tiny winged creature is present, gentle and ethereal. Even if not seen, it is, for a moment, very close by.
Not forgetting St.Thomas
There is one more thing to note about this remarkable painting, and that is its location. The background shows a very real place that Millais knew well. It is, moreover, clearly one he wishes us to recognise: the small town of Winchelsea in East Sussex. The rainbow, indicating the way the girls will take, appears over the ancient church of St Thomas, and what is still a largely intact medieval habitation.
The Church of St Thomas and Winchelsea.
This church, like many 'St Thomas' churches prior to the Reformation, was originally dedicated to Thomas Becket. But the Parish appears to be known, and would have been known in Millais's day, as that of St Thomas the Apostle. This was the ‘doubting Thomas’of the Bible – the sceptic among the disciples. Thomas it was who insisted on seeing Christ's wounds in order to accept the truth of the Resurrection. He was a man who needed visual proof in order to believe and to have faith. He needed to see for himself.
Seeing and believing
With Darwin’s work on evolution just around the corner at the time of this painting, and with academic advances in geology and archaeology coming on apace and thus questioning much that the Bible had to say concerning the age of the Earth, there were plenty of doubting Thomases at large. Perhaps Millais is also addressing this situation in his painting.
And if we wish to push this notion even further (and I think Millais would have been happy for us to do so), we can finish with a little piece of Biblical wisdom. Or, as Jesus said one day when he took Thomas aside for a quiet word: ‘Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.’ (John 20:29)
The blind girl is on display at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, England (and there's a lot to see it it).