John Everett Millais, Spring (Apple Blossoms)

Millais’s wife referred to this stunning painting as “full of beauty and without subject.”

A conversation with Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris in front of Sir John Everett Millais, Spring (Apple Blossoms), 1859, oil on canvas,113 x 176.3 cm (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in Lady Lever Art Gallery in Liverpool, England. We’re looking at a painting called “Apple Blossoms,” by Sir John Everett Millais.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:13] We’re looking at a painting that seems like a very straightforward subject at first. In fact, it looks like a genre scene, a scene of everyday life.

[0:21] We have young girls, young women having a picnic, set against the backdrop of apple trees. The girls have been gathering wildflowers, they’re being served porridge, but we know from the positions of the figures and the composition that there’s much more to this painting.

Dr. Zucker: [0:41] All of the figures are pushed into the foreground, creating almost a frieze of figures. Just behind them, we see a low wall and then an orchard, and those apple trees are amazing. There’s this delicate rendering of these ephemeral blossoms that are there only for a few days.

Dr. Harris: [0:59] We see that some are just starting to open, that others are in full bloom.

Dr. Zucker: [1:05] It’s clearly a metaphor for the varied ages of the young women and girls below.

Dr. Harris: [1:11] We know that Millais painted much of this outdoors, in a very serious effort to capture the effects of light on the apple trees and on the figures.

Dr. Zucker: [1:20] Look at the yellows of that dress. They deepen to a burnt orange or lighten in various places. Then there’s those blues of the shadows.

Dr. Harris: [1:29] That’s the only figure who seems to look out at us. One of the strange effects of this painting is that there is a sense of the figures being alone in their thoughts and isolated from one another. That gives the painting, I think, a feeling of solemnity, that something more serious is happening here and also something almost religious.

Dr. Zucker: [1:54] Balancing the gesture of pouring is an unexpected intrusion into this painting that is the topmost part of a scythe pointing down to the young girl in yellow. A scythe is a traditional symbol of death.

Dr. Harris: [2:07] Well, we think about the Grim Reaper, who uses a scythe to reap souls, and that scythe points directly down at that girl who is looking out at us. It also points down to the wildflowers that the girls have gathered. We seem to have a painting that is about the transience of youth, of beauty, the passage of time.

Dr. Zucker: [2:30] Millais seems to be seeking a means to bring religious sentiment into modern life.

Dr. Harris: [2:36] We know that in the later part of the 1850s, Millais is moving away from literary subjects, from religious subjects that had occupied the years immediately after 1848, when he, together with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and the other artists founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which sought to revive British art by looking back to art before the Renaissance.

[3:06] But those early Pre-Raphaelite paintings all had very clear subject matter. Here, and in several other paintings from the later part of the 1850s, including “Autumn Leaves,” which this painting may be a pendant to, and other paintings like “The Blind Girl.”

[3:25] Millais seems to be more interested in evoking a feeling, a mood.

[3:31] This idea may seem very familiar to us, but a Victorian audience would have looked for a very clear narrative. Instead, Millais is giving us something very poetic.

[3:43] Art historians have seen this series of paintings by Millais as precursors to what will happen in English painting in the 1860s. The style or movement we call the Aesthetic Movement. The idea of art for art’s sake.

[3:57] That what matters in a painting is not the narrative, but the color harmonies, the forms, the sense of beauty that the painting evokes.

[4:07] We know that, like the apple blossoms, like the flowers that they’ve picked, that these girls will mature, will grow older, and time will pass.

[4:17] [music]

Read about this painting on the Victorian Web

A video about this painting from the National Museums Liverpool

Paul Barlow, Time Present and Time Past: The Art of John Everett Millais (London: Routledge, 2005).

Malcolm Warner, “The Pre-Raphaelites and the National Gallery,” Huntington Library Quarterly, volume 55, number 1 (1992), pp. 1–11.

Leslie Parris, Pre-Raphaelite Papers (London: Tate Gallery, 1984).

T. J. Barringer, ‎Jason Rosenfeld, ‎Alison Smith, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant Garde (London: Tate, 2012).

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "John Everett Millais, Spring (Apple Blossoms)," in Smarthistory, January 10, 2023, accessed July 20, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/john-everett-millais-spring-apple-blossoms/.