Why the picture of John Millet “Christ in the parental home” caused a scandal and the beginning of a new direction in art
The picture in which Christ and his family were depicted as “ordinary people” caused a once-great resonance in English society. Many considered the excessive realism inappropriate and even “disgusting.” But the young artist who created this work had his own motives for that – and time has shown that the calculation was justified.
Conquer the Academy of Arts and start a rebellion against its foundations
The author of the picture, which caused an extremely stormy resonance in English society, was John Everett Millet, who was born in Southampton in 1829. He was considered a young genius – from the age of nine he showed brilliant abilities in drawing, and from eleven became the youngest student of the Royal Academy of Arts in its entire history. Among Millet’s achievements over the years of study were the Academy’s silver medal for drawing, a gold medal for his painting, and recognition of his work as the best at the 1846 exhibition.
In 1848, a nineteen-year-old artist became close to his fellow workers, Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, with whom he founded the Brotherhood of the Pre-Raphaelites, a circle of artists who opposed academic traditions in painting, rejected the imitation of the classics and aspired to the canons recognized “before Rafael” hence the name of society. Millet and his comrades believed that the art of their time lacked the “sincerity and simplicity” that existed in the works of the artists of the Early Renaissance – Perugino, Bellini, Fra Angelico.
According to the principles of the new direction, paintings were painted only from nature, and Millet’s work “Christ in the Parental Home”, which appeared in 1850, is no exception.
Blasphemy or the birth of a new art?
The painting was one of the exhibits at the Royal Academy of Arts Exhibition, becoming for a long time its most discussed work. Millet portrayed the Holy Family in the setting of an ordinary carpentry workshop. Viewers watch the moment when the young Christ, who injured his hand, probably with a nail, approaches the Virgin and points to the wound from which the blood drips. Virgin Mary is on her knees, O John the Baptist brings a bowl of water. Among the other characters in the picture are St. Anna, pulling a nail from the table, which apparently caused the wound, St. Joseph, performing his carpentry work with his assistant.
The painting was put up without a name, but was accompanied by a quote from the Bible: “They will tell him: why are you holding scars?” And he will answer: because they beat me in the house of those who love me ”(Zech., 13: 6). In the work, in spite of the unusual for that time realism, there were many symbolic references to the Holy Scriptures. A wound in the palm of the hand and a drop of blood on the foot indicated the coming Crucifix, as did the staircase on the wall of the workshop, which appears in the Bible when describing the removal from the cross. The carpentry triangle hanging nearby symbolizes the Trinity, and the dove is the Holy Spirit. Sheeps are visible behind the open door, causing associations with an innocent victim.
A large number of biblical characters, as well as the plot itself, seemed to contradict the manner in which the picture was painted: with realism not characteristic of that time, a rejection of the idealization of the figures of saints, a violation of the traditional ideas about the appearance of the characters. For example, the Virgin Mary has been portrayed as a young woman, a blonde, over the centuries since the Renaissance.
True to the rule of painting from nature, Millet invited his daughter-in-law Mary Hodgkinson to pose for him to represent the mother of Christ. He painted the figure of Jesus from the son of one of his friends, John the Baptist, from his cousin, and for the head of Joseph the model became Millet Sr., the father of the artist. Millet painted the figure of a carpenter, with his sinewy hands showing the traces of many years of work, from a real artisan, and the situation in the picture itself repeats the interior in which it was created – a carpentry workshop in Oxford Street.
Christ in the Parental Home caused a storm of indignation in the London public, the Times was described as “outrageous,” and Charles Dickens spoke of her as “low, vile, disgusting, and repulsive.” The appearance of Jesus, depicted by a red-haired Jewish boy in violation of all the usual canons, was especially offensive to the feelings of the audience. The picture, despite the fact that it was filled with light, made an impression too mundane, the saints became part of everyday life, all the characters seemed angular.