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‘O, how amid our struggles, noise and strife, This face of sleeping child breathes perfect peace; Looks towards the day when our work must cease, Our frail bark loosened from the shore of life.’
Many great artworks have been inspired by love and Sleeping must surely be one of the most sensitive celebrations of paternal love ever painted. According to the artist’s son, the subject ‘… was suggested by seeing my sister Carrie, then a very little girl, fast asleep the morning after a children’s party. Millais went to the nursery to look for the child, and found the French maid, Berthe, sewing beside the bed, waiting for her charge to wake up; and when sitting for this picture the little model used often to go to sleep in real earnest’. (J.G. Millais, The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais, London, 1899, vol. I, p. 395)
Alice Sophia Caroline Millais (always known as Carrie), was the last of Millais’ children to be born, on 10 April 1862. Her parents’ marriage was one of the great scandals of the Victorian art world, and now has enduring fascination; her mother Effie had been unhappily married to the art critic John Ruskin, an oppressive six-year marriage that was annulled in 1854 without being consummated. Effie and Millais married a year after the annulment and she gave birth to eight children, seven of which had been born before Sleeping was painted. By the later 1860s the scandal was largely forgotten and the Millais family was a loving, comfortable and happy household – in 1885 he was elevated to the baronetage by Queen Victoria and in 1896 he became President of the Royal Academy, the greatest honour of the art establishment. He became one of the most popular and successful artists of his generation and remains one of Britain’s most beloved painters – in 2007 an exhibition of his work was seen by 660,000 visitors in the UK, Holland and Japan. As Millais had been in 1848 one of the three principal members of the artistic movement known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 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' 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.
When it was exhibited at the Royal Academy summer exhibition in 1867, Sleeping was accompanied by depictions of Carrie’s elder sisters, Effie in The Minuet (Elton Hall Collection) and Mary in Waking (Perth Museum and Art Gallery). As John Guille Millais wrote; ‘These three pictures were exact portraits of my sisters Carrie, Mary and Effie, and (as I have often heard from those who knew them from their infancy) were not idealised in the slightest degree. The art of the painter was exercised only in seizing upon the beauty of the particular child at a certain moment, and transferring it to canvas. That was not idealising, but simply catching the child at its very best’ (Ibid, p. 392) It could be said that all three pictures show the sisters enacting a chronology of life for Victorian children of the comfortable classes; Effie preparing to dance for an audience at an evening soiree, Carrie sleeping after being exhausted at a party and Mary waking with anticipation of the day ahead. Each child has a companion, in Effie’s case it is her aunt Alice Gray on the piano, in Mary’s case a pet bird and a doll and Carrie has her maid quietly sewing. Waking was begun in July 1865 and the dealers Moore, McQueen & Co committing to pay 1,000 guineas for the unfinished picture on 28 September that year according to Millais’ bank account at Coutts. On the following day Millais told his wife Effie that he had promised to paint a companion picture for Moore of a sleeping child. By December Waking had been sold to Agnew’s who also took the commitment to buy the projected picture Sleeping. Millais had enjoyed a considerable success when he exhibited My First Sermon and My Second Sermon (both Guildhall Art Gallery, London) at the Royal Academy in 1863 and 1864 respectively and wanted to repeat the formula of painting pendant pictures. He decided that the impact would be more striking if Sleeping and Waking were shown together rather than in consecutive year’s exhibitions. His decision was a good one as the critic for Art Journal noted enthusiastically;
‘Mr Millais has taken from the nursery two of the most delightful pictures ever seen in the Academy.’
Millais would become celebrated as the most popular painter of children in the Victorian era, with prints of paintings like The Little Speedwell’s Darling Blue (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight) Cherry Ripe (sold in these rooms, 1 July 2004, lot 21) and Bubbles (Unilever, on loan to Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight) selling in the millions and gracing the walls of school-rooms, tenements, cottages and mansions. However, these pictures were painted over a decade after Sleeping, which is closer in technique to the Pre-Raphaelite depictions of children made in the 1850s, The Blind Girl of 1854-6 (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery) Autumn Leaves of 1855-6 (Manchester City Art Gallery) and most potently L’Enfant du Regiment of 1854-5 (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven) which depicts a barefooted orphan sleeping on a medieval tomb beneath a grenadier’s jacket. Whilst L’Enfant du Regiment took its inspiration from Donizetti’s comic opera and was rather sentimentalised, Sleeping had a greater realism and demonstrated a move away from narrative sentiment to depicting true, paternal tenderness.
‘Millais's skill and humour in comprehending both the ease and lack of confidence with which his child models assumed their role was an essential part of the appeal such works made to adults conscious of the otherness of childhood.’
Millais’ love for his children is summed up by Georgiana, wife of the artist Edward Burne-Jones writing about her husband; ‘I remember hearing him and Millais once talk to each other about their daughters, each boasting that he was the most devoted father. “Ah, but you don’t take your daughter’s breakfast up to her in bed,” said Edward, certain that the prize belonged to him. Millais’ triumphant “Yes, I do!” left them only equal.’ Millais enjoyed the company of his daughters in his studio but using such young models had its challenges, as they easily became bored by the meticulousness of their father’s work. They were less enthusiastic than their father about posing for hours when they would rather be playing in the garden or with their toys. Although John Guile suggested that Carrie was happy to sleep while posing for Sleeping, he also reported that none of the girls enjoyed sitting for their portraits. He quoted Mary; ‘“It was horrid, just after breakfast, to be taken upstairs and undressed again, to be put to bed in the studio.”’ (Ibid, p. 395) Mary was particularly troublesome, kicking off the bedclothes while Millais was trying to paint them, thus ruining the perfectly arranged folds of the linen. She even decided to repaint the foreground of Waking while her father had left the room – upon his return he was horrified to find brown lines of paint over his work. The love of a father over-ruled the frustration of the artist and Millais bore their varying tempers of his children with good humour although they caused him great vexations.
‘Examples of beauty… rare and refined… are supplied by Mr Millais’ two delightful pictures “Sleeping” and “Waking”, the former of which seems to us the most beautiful picture the artist has ever painted, and one of the chef d’oeuvres, indeed, of the English school.’
Both Sleeping and Waking were rapturously received by the art critic Tom Taylor when they were exhibited at the Royal Academy; he wrote; 'It represents a sweet little girl of three or four in her day sleep, with the primroses and hyacinths she has gathered slipping from the relaxed grasp of her chubby fingers. The sweet rosy face, with its silk-soft hair, moist with the dew of slumber, shines out like a flower from the surrounding white of the pillow and sheets. The imitative painting of bed linen of the quilted satin couvre pied, muslin frock, hanging at the foot of the crib, with its audaciously gorgeous crimson sash, ready for waking wear, is simply consummate, and it is the best tribute to the exquisiteness of the child’s beauty that her head and hands hold their supremacy in the midst of accessories finished almost to the point of illusion…’ (Times, 4 May 1867, p. 12) Taylor commended Waking too but felt that ‘the sleeping beauty carries the day’ concluding ‘All who see these pictures will envy the possessors of them.’
The success of Sleeping was not limited to Britain; the French critic Philippe Burty wrote a lengthy review of the academy exhibition in the Gazette des Breaux-Arts, in which he described Sleeping as; ‘la plus exquise etude de Petit fille endormie que nous ayons encore vue. L’impression est saisissante. C’est l’Enface, c’est le Sommeil, c’est la Purete, symbolises sans le plus adorable et, m’a-t-on dit, les plus fidele portrait, car c’est la la proper fille de l’heureux M. Millais.’ (the most exquisite study of a sleeping little girl that we have yet seen. The impression is striking…) (P. Burty, 'L'exhibition de l'Acadamie Royale de Londres', Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 1st series, XXIII, July 1867, pp. 87-8)
J.G. Millais recognised that Sleeping and Waking were ‘specimens of his later Pre-Raphaelite manner’ and critics applauded the technical depiction of fabrics in particular, citing the audacious flash of brilliant crimson ribbon in the left foreground as being one of the ‘daring eccentricities which a man conscious of his power is apt to indulge in’. (Art Journal, 1867, p. 137) In truth, Sleeping fits somewhere between Pre-Raphaelitism and the Aesthetic Movement. In 1898 the affinity with the Aesthetic Movement was noted when discussing Sleeping; ‘remarkable… chiefly for the triumphantly executed exercise in tone and texture in the white coverings of the bed.’ (M.H. Spielmann, Millais and his Works, London, 1898) Aesthetic principles in which there was an emphasis on abstract values did not preclude symbolism and allusion. In Sleeping Millais carefully chose the flowers for the paintings; bluebells to symbolise devotion and constancy and primroses associated with love. The critic F.G. Stephens noted the ‘language of flowers’ in his review; ‘a double meaning, only part of which.. was… obvious to the designer… a little girl… deep in rest and sunk in peace, just as the lush hyacinths [sic] that lie by her hand – the playthings of her pillow – fell from her fingers and closed their petals, assured of death. Here is the poetic suggestiveness of the picture, if not that of the artist; the girl sleeps, and will wake; the flowers, all beautiful though they be, will die, - indeed as their cut stems show, are already dead.’ (Athenaeum, 11 May 1867, p. 628) The scattered flowers in Sleeping recall those floating downstream in Millais’ masterpiece Ophelia painted at the zenith of his Pre-Raphaelite period, perhaps a s a nostalgic reference to past accolade, whilst the modernity of the subject suggests a conscious desire to be contemporary.
The first private owner of Sleeping was James Collier Harter, who purchased it from Agnew’s. Harter had a fine collection of pictures by Linnell, Landseer, Faed, Cox, Alma-Tadema and Poole but Sleeping was his only example by Millais and undoubtedly the finest picture he possessed. He lent it to Millais’ retrospective exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1886 and, most pertinently to the present situation, he lent it to the Royal Jubilee Exhibition in Manchester in 1887.
When Harter died, the contents of The Cedars - his home in Leamington in Warwickshire - were sold and Sleeping was purchased by another resident of Leamington, Charles J. Shaw. It is likely that Shaw had known and admired it at Harter’s home and now took the opportunity to buy it. It was Shaw who lent it to Millais’ memorial exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1898 and it remained with him until his death in 1926. By this time Victorian art was at a low ebb in popularity and the art dealer William Sampson paid only 800 guineas for the painting, close to half what had been paid in 1890 by Harter. Remarkably, by 1934 Sleeping had been bought by the subject of the painting, Carrie. She had married Sir Charles Beilby Stuart Wortley, the son of the Rt. Hon. James Archibald Stuart Wortley who had been Solicitor General. The Wortley’s were very well-connected and moved in highly-cultured circles. Carrie and Charles probably met through his brother Archie who studied under Millais and became a competent portrait painter. They were married on 6 January 1886 when she was twenty-three. They had a mutual love of music and were both talented pianists and there can have been fewer culturally-uplifting sights than witnessing them both playing Schumann and Greig concertos on two grand pianos in the house designed by Norman Shaw at No.7 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. Their closest friend was Sir Claude Philipps, the first Keeper of the Wallace Collection and they were intimate with many musicians, including Sir Arthur Sullivan with whom Carrie wrote notes on ‘Millais’ Love of Music’ in her brother J.G. Millais’ biography of their father. Elgar called Carrie “Windflower” after the subject of his Violin Concerto which she had encouraged him to complete after he had lost enthusiasm for it. Carrie died on New Year’s Day 1936 with Sleeping hanging on one of the walls of her home. A couple of years earlier she had written that it was ‘here in this room where I write. It is lovely!’ Carrie was now a titled and cultured woman in her seventies but no doubt when she looked at the picture of her four-year-old self sleeping she recalled the mischief she and her siblings had caused her father, which he had summed up in an interview given in 1893;
‘It puts me into a perfect fever. They are the very worst sitters in creation. It is so unnatural to a child to keep quiet and they can’t do it; they are so full of life and spirits. They drive me perfectly wild. Dear little things, it isn’t their fault, but when I hear their merry pattering footsteps outside I get in a fidget all over, and there is nothing for it but to take my pipe well between my teeth and keep my mouth shut or I shall go frantic.’