The Blind Girl by John Everett Millais

The Blind Girl by Millais (1854-56)

Another day, another painting, another offering from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  My Daily Art Display for today is one of John Everett Millais’ finest works of art, entitled The Blind Girl which he painted in 1856.  In it we have a fusion of the elements of figure and landscape painting depicting, in the foreground, two girls sitting near a roadside against the backdrop of an expanse of wide, open fields with a distant view of a town.

Begging plea

The elder of the two girls, with her eyes closed, is blind.  She is homeless and forced to beg for sustenance by playing her concertina, which we see on her lap.  Her wretched plight is emphasized even more by the sheet of paper hanging around her neck with the words “PITY THE BLIND”.   Millais has chosen as his subject for this painting the social evil of the day – vagrancy among children and the disabled.  Millais hoped that his painting would elicit sympathy from its viewers for the plight of this blind girl and those like her.  There is a stillness and tranquility about the girl and this is borne out by the fact that we see a tortoiseshell butterfly resting on her shawl.

The younger girl, who is partly perched on the lap of the blind girl, and whom we believe maybe her sister, does not look out at us but is looking back at the double rainbow and the enchanting landscape below this phenomenon.  Some art historians have interpreted Millais’ depiction of the double rainbow as a Christian symbol of hope and one must remember that at the time Millais was still influenced by his former patron John Ruskin and it was Ruskin’s belief that there was a connection between the beauty of nature and the divine handiwork of God.   It is an enchanting scene we see before us and has luminosity brought on by the aftermath of what has probably been a heavy downpour of rain.  The rain has made the grass looks so green and its fresh appearance tempts us to sniff the air so as to take in the delights of the countryside.

Look at the way the two girls are depicted by Millais.  See how the younger girl snuggles within the shawl of the blind girl.  I wonder whether Millais meant us to look at their positioning and think of the Madonna and Child.  Whereas we would expect the sighted girl to look after the blind girl there appears to be a role reversal in this painting.  Maybe the blind girl is comforting her young companion who may have been frightened by the storm which has just passed.  Maybe the young girl is peeking around the blind girl’s shawl at a point in the distance where there had once been flashes of lightning and the rumble of thunder.  Take a moment to study the blind girl.  See how she seems to be trying to compensate her loss of sight through her other senses – the sense of touch.   See how, with one hand, she grips the hand of her young companion and with the other she fingers a blade of grass.  It is interesting to note how meticulous Millais has painted each individual blade of grass near to the hand of this blind girl.  She is also doing what so many of us do when the sun is shining – we close our eyes and face the sun and absorb the warmth of its rays.  The girl is taking pleasure in her surroundings, the warmth of the sunlight, the sounds of the birds and the smells emanating from the countryside all around her.

The background of this picture is a view of Winchelsea, a small village in East Sussex, located about two miles south-west of the coastal town of Rye.   The village stands on the site of a medieval town, founded in 1288, to replace an earlier town of the same name, sometimes known as Old Winchelsea, which was lost to the sea.   It is known that Millais, along with his fellow artists, Holman Hunt and Edward Lear visited the town in 1852.   It is recorded that Millais completed the middle ground of the painting whilst in Perth, Scotland where he had taken his new bride, Effie, the former Mrs Ruskin, in the summer of 1855.  The history of the painting chronicles that the last thing to be painted was the amber-coloured skirt, which the blind girl is wearing and which Effie cajoled an old woman into lending it to her.  Effie recorded the incident, writing:

“…She swore an oath and said what could Mrs Millais want with her old Coat, it was so dirty, but I was welcome.  I kept it two days and sent it back with a shilling and she was quite pleased…”

For his models for this painting, Millais used Matilda Proudfoot as the blind girl and Isabella Nichol as her younger sister. Originally Millais had used his wife Effie as the model for the blind girl but later he decided to use Matilda.

The Liverpool Academy awarded this painting its annual prize in 1857.    It was well received and is now looked upon as one of Millais’ finest works of art.  His Pre-Raphaelite colleague, Dante Rossetti declared it to be:

“…One of the most touching and perfect things I know….”

John Ruskin his former mentor and patron described The Blind Girl:

“…’The common is a fairly spacious bit of ragged pasture, and at the side of the public road passing over it the blind girl has sat down to rest awhile. She is a simple beggar, not a poetical or vicious one, a girl of eighteen or twenty, extremely plain-featured, but healthy, and just now resting, not because she is much tired but because the sun has but this moment come out after a shower and the smell of grass is pleasant….”

One interesting technical aspect of the painting is Millais’ depiction of the double rainbow.  When he showed the painting for the first time, somebody made him aware of his technical error as he had painted the two rainbows with their colours in the same order but he was advised that with double rainbows the inner rainbow of the two inverts the order of the colours.  Later Millais, in order to satisfy scientific accuracy, re-painted the inner rainbow.