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.

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About jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.
This entry was posted in Art, Art Blog, Art display, Art History, English artist, John Everett Millais, Pre Raphelites. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The Blind Girl by John Everett Millais

  1. linda321 says:

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  3. Great job!
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  4. Martin says:

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  5. Barry Dickins says:

    What you receive from this uncanny picture is the guaranteed torment of not ever seeing either the sin or the beloved who is seated so close right next to you; what you receive from this blinding work is the astonishing tragedy of having once seen a thing then the sure knowledge nothing comes from something invisible once again; that the entire universe has become deaf and dumb and blind into the bad bargain with a god who couldn’t really care any less that you too are blind.
    The blind who view the work metamorphose to the weeping masses of seers but the poor girl is not there any longer because it was just a trick of light in the very first instance.

    The more radiant nature blooms the savager the astonishing psychological pain of never seeing a a single thing; a tree used once to be thought of as miraculous but not anymore since it can’t be viewed through a dead socket. Nature has never been kinder or crueler in this sunbathed painting where the birds are drenched and silhouetted with gentle shock-waves of light which are shut out and kept out of the receptive minds and once upon a time sparkling memories of someone no longer looking at and for trees that are as now as blind as bats used to be before the vicious act of blindness nipped them in the beak and bud so that they sing no more for all the good music shall do them.

    The brighter the radiance becomes the more mordant the reaction is born deep in the things and beings that now no longer see; as though visual love is over and deaf mute love is over; the remarkable power of this picture is the absence of malice because we can all hate God for sending us blind and yet it is not ever the fault of angels booted from Heaven because you probably went blind out of boredom anyway.
    This is the only picture that will make blind viewers glad they cannot see.
    Barry Dickins For Patricia Wiltshire on 24-10-16

  6. Patricia W says:

    I love your response, Barry, which reaches the heights of the feelings this painting can arouse.
    This painting has been used to illustrate the idea of ‘disability’ on one website, as well as ‘the tragedy of disability’. I think this idea does a disservice to the painting and perhaps a disservice to those suffering from what is commonly referred to as a physical or mental ‘disability’. While it can be said that Millais may have painted this blind girl to draw attention to social conditions of the time and elicit sympathy for the plight of such people, I don’t find anything pitiable about the girl herself.
    I know that ‘Pity the Blind’ is written on a sign around her neck, though it’s not easy to read. It’s almost irrelevant, tucked away as it is – of minor importance in the painting. What is central to this picture is ‘the blind girl’s’ still figure and face. Blind people often describe their ability to `see’ things, even colours, through different senses. This girl has her face raised to the sun while the concertina resting on her lap tells us she plays and listens to music. She is more finely attuned and more ‘able’ to take in the smells and sounds of the countryside than some of those cosseted within the neat, houses in the distance.
    Far from `being isolated from the grandeur and beauty of the landscape’ because ‘she has a disability’, she has become part of this landscpe in Millais’ painting. She is so still a butterfly is able to rest undisturbed on her cloak and it’s possible she may even know that. Her sense of touch and her ability to ‘see’ through touch is shown in her fingers exploring the grass, while another hand clasps the hand of her child companion tightly. The bond between the two is a deep one as the child leans into her and describes the double rainbow. She is experiencing the landscape and the rainbow through the eyes of the child who is one with her.
    At this particular moment in time she is not to be pitied though we may wish to curse the conditions that brought her to such a place which, ironically, are the very things which heighten her awareness of beauty.
    ‘Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
    Than ours, a friend to man, to whom they say’st,
    Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

    Ode on a Grecian Urn – John Kea

  7. Patricia Wiltshire says:

    I love your response, Barry, which reaches the heights of the feelings this painting can arouse.
    This painting has been used to illustrate the idea of ‘disability’ on one website, as well as ‘the tragedy of disability’. I think this idea does a disservice to the painting and perhaps a disservice to those suffering from what is commonly referred to as a physical or mental ‘disability’. While it can be said that Millais may have painted this blind girl to draw attention to social conditions of the time and elicit sympathy for the plight of such people, I don’t find anything pitiable about the girl herself.
    I know that ‘Pity the Blind’ is written on a sign around her neck, though it’s not easy to read. It’s almost irrelevant, tucked away as it is – of minor importance in the painting. What is central to this picture is ‘the blind girl’s’ still figure and face. Blind people often describe their ability to `see’ things, even colours, through different senses. This girl has her face raised to the sun while the concertina resting on her lap tells us she plays and listens to music. She is more finely attuned and more ‘able’ to take in the smells and sounds of the countryside than some of those cosseted within the neat, houses in the distance.
    Far from `being isolated from the grandeur and beauty of the landscape’, as someone has suggested, she has become part of it in Millais’ painting. She is so still a butterfly is able to rest undisturbed on her cloak. Her sense of touch and her ability to ‘see’ through touch is shown in her fingers exploring the grass, while another hand clasps the hand of her child companion tightly. The bond between the two is a deep one as the child leans into her and describes the double rainbow. She is experiencing the landscape and the rainbow through the eyes of the child who is one with her.
    At this particular moment in time she is not to be pitied though we may wish to curse the conditions that brought her to such a place which, ironically, are the very things which heighten her awareness of beauty.
    ‘Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
    Than ours, a friend to man, to whom they say’st,
    Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

    Ode on a Grecian Urn – John Keats

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