John Everett Millais (1829-1896) was one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood; a group of artists who were quite revolutionary in their time for both their art and their lifestyles. In 1856 Millais completed his oil-on-canvas painting entitled ‘The Blind Girl’ showing two beggar girls in sunshine in the countryside near Winchelsea, Sussex. I am very keen on most of the Pre-Raphaelites work but this painting is one of my absolute favourites, not just from Millais or the brotherhood, but in art overall – if I were to be executed and were granted a final wish it would be to see this painting.
The light and clarity in this painting is astonishing, it is almost like a photograph, or like a still moment in time – captured forever on canvas. It is a strong but angled light, contrasting with the dark rainclouds in the background of the sky, it is like the light on a summer evening after a storm has passed over – or is perhaps approaching. This sunlight is strong enough to fracture in the distant falling rain and produce a double rainbow which is arcing over the ancient town set upon the hill. This strong light has brought everything it touches into detailed clarity; we see the cattle in the field, the rooks too with glistening oily plumage, we can see the old medieval town gates and each branch of the trees on the hill. In the foreground, quite clearly, are the stems of rushes and grasses verging a brook, as well as small blue flowers and the butterfly that has alighted on the girls shawl – we see every stitch in the girls clothing.
The colours are so bright and strong and golden and the landscape so meticulously detailed by Millais that it seems to me that the clarity and beauty of the setting has more of a purpose than to look pretty. Of course there are the two beggar girls, front and foremost, one of whom is blind, it is her blindness which makes the intense visual background seem almost cruel. The girl is missing out (though her sister isn’t) on the beautiful summer day around her and the injustice of this juxtaposition is clear. Yet is she totally missing out?
Her face is raised into the sunlight, she can feel the warmth of its rays on her skin, she can probably smell the grass of the meadow and the scent of the flowers, she may be able to hear the cattle lowing or the rooks squabbling or the brook plashing. Her right hand is holding onto a tuft of grass by her side, she can feel the lushness of it after a summer of growth – she may be missing the rainbow but her other senses are not missing out on the world surrounding her. It seems to me that she is enjoying this sensitive moment as much as her sister due to the fact she is sitting so still – concentrating on her senses, you can tell this thanks to the (tortoiseshell?) butterfly resting on her which would not have done so if she was fidgeting.
Yet despite that, I am still saddened by her blindness and the sights she can never see, as well as the fact she has to beg on the roadside for money from strangers, playing her accordion, just so she can keep herself and her sister from starving. At the time this painting was made, vagrancy and the lack of support for disabled people (especially children) was a big problem. The social divide and distribution of wealth was about as bad as it ever got in Britain during the 1800’s so sights like this would have been common in the city streets and on country roads.
The rainbow hints at new beginnings and redemption, the dark storm clouds hint of bad things passed or bad things to come, the bright sunshine brings clearness to the world yet seems to mock the blind girl, who is always in darkness. There are many ways to interpret this painting, and the point of art is to make people feel things, though we all will feel different, to me this artwork makes me feel a heady mixture of intense joy and melancholy. The more I think about this painting the more complex this mix becomes as I see both more positive messages in it and then pessimistic ones; I suppose the point is that it makes me feel a lot, which is a good thing, and I could easily stare at it for hours without getting bored.
I actually had the blessing of seeing this painting in the flesh at an exhibition in London once, I remember that despite being surrounded by plenty of other impressive Pre-Raphaelite works it was at this one that I lingered and this one that stuck in my memory. Nature plays a large part in a lot of the Pre-Raphaelite artworks from all different artists; it was one of the things that connected them, I think this is of great benefit to their art as there are few things capable of producing such raw and often undefinable emotions as nature.