Musings on Milliais: ‘Autumn Leaves’

Spying the first acorn, those first chills to the air and ultimately the changing hues of leaves usher in one of the gentlest of seasons – AUTUMN. For some it is a season synonymous with decay and death, but for me it is quite the opposite. Being instead, a new view of the world and its bare bones in their naked honesty as the cycle of renewal begins again. As most gardeners know, the chopping back of faded perennials in autumn often reveals the newly formed shoots that will be next summer’s glory.

Many of my favourite paintings by Millais are autumnal in theme and by the virtuosity of his hand and romantic soul, imbued with sense of fairy-tale enchantment. Millais has a keen sense of the ethereal, transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary regardless of subject and narrative.

  • millais_leavesAutumn Leaves (1856) is perhaps one of Millais’s most famous works and often discussed in terms of the symbolism therein. By Juxtaposing a heap of decaying leaves with the fresh youthful girls and the brooding sky at twilight, the composition readily lends itself to a discussion on the transience of youth and mortality. However in a letter to F.G. Stephens, Millais describes how he had “intended the picture to awaken by its solemnity the deepest religious reflection. I chose the subject of burning leaves as most calculated to produce this feeling”. Can we therefore infer from Millais comment that rather than being a melancholic dirge on the inevitably of human decline, that he was aiming for something more ethereal in sentiment; a moment of silence and a space for reflection that is outside the ordinary material world? If we consider it so, then what Millais provides the viewer with is the means of transporting themselves to a higher spiritual plane by employing the vernacular symbolism of the every day. Elements of the composition support this assertion; despite the scene being one of action there is a static quality to the figures, the directional variance in the girls’ respective gazes imbues the painting with a feeling of their disconnection from corporeality.

However the painting did not weave its magic upon its first owner Mr Eden from Lytham. Eden disliked the painting intensely when it reached him, asking that Millais take the painting back. His request was declined by Millais’s wife, Effie, who advised Eden sit opposite it at dinner for a few months. Following this advice Eden found that proximity to the work produced an even greater dislike of it and so when his friend Mr Miller of Preston offered to exchange any three of his paintings for the Millais. Eden was quick to accept.

‘Autumn Leaves’ can be seen in all its splendour at Manchester City Art Gallery, where it forms part of the permanent display of Pre-Raphaelite artworks.

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