My First Sermon depicts Effie, the four year old daughter of the artist sitting expectantly in a high backed wooden pew in church. According to Millais' son, studies of the church pew were made at the twelfth century church of All Saints in Kingston Upon Thames. At her side is a leather-bound prayer book and the fur-trimmed coat and yellow gloves of her mother, who has brought her to witness her first sermon. The child sits with great self-possession as she listens to the sermon, and betrays no sign of weariness or impatience.
As Millais had been in 1848 one of the three principal members of the artistic movement known as Pre-Raphaelitism, in which - along with William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti - he had attempted to lead the reform of English painting in favour of emotionally sincere and personal subjects, treated with intense colour and carefully observed natural detail, in the later 1850s and 1860s he remained a progressive and challenging artist. This was a period of extraordinary inventiveness and aesthetic sophistication, when painters and writers explored issues of how works of art might be understood - whether in a literal and documentary way or, as the artists of the aesthetic movement preferred, subliminally and by subtle inflection of mood. Millais's subjects which portray children, often infused with a sentimental tinge, represent this movement towards imagery with which the spectator is invited to sympathise and find delight. The present painting is an autograph replica of My First Sermon; the prime version of the subject (Fig 1. Guildhall Art Gallery, London) was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1863, to critical and popular acclaim. It is likely that it is this version that was painted as a commission for Thomas Agnew & Sons who wanted to produce an engraving of the painting. Letters from Millais to his wife now at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York state; 'I mean to make a small sketch of the First Sermon for Agnew' and 'I nearly finished the little replica of First Sermon yesterday... I will finish it today'. Another autograph replica of My First Sermon painted in watercolour is also known (sold in these rooms, 19 November 2008, lot 140).
In 1864 Millais painted My Second Sermon (Guildhall Art Gallery, London) as a pendant to the oil version of My First Sermon. Millais produced a series of studies of childhood, early examples including Red Riding Hood of 1864 (sold in these rooms, 19 November 2013, lot 10), The Minuet and Sleeping of 1866 and a later example being the famous Cherry Ripe of 1879 (sold in these rooms, 1 July 2004, lot 21).
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