Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Painting of the Day: "The Ghost at the Wedding Ceremony," 1853

The Ghost at the Wedding Ceremony
John Everett Millais, 1853
The Victoria & Albert Museum
Okay, it’s getting to be Halloween. So, of course, we’ve got to take a look at some spooky objects. Hey, here’s one.

This drawing by Sir John Everett Millais dates to 1853. It’s a scene of nine standing figures, four female to the viewer's left and four male, with one partly cut off and another ghostly, to the right. In the center of the composition is a figure with a book who seems to be expressing concern for the forward-most woman. She appears to be recoiling from the leading man's advance. He holds, in his right hand, a ring.

Well, that’s all very curious. What could it mean? This is a depiction of the separation of lovers by death. It is inscribed with the phrase, “I won't, I don't.” Essentially, this is the representation of a bride spying the phantom of a deceased sweetheart. He clutches his broken heart as he looms behind her new bridegroom.

But, surely there’s more to it. Some believe that the drawing may, in fact, allude to the marriage of Effie Gray (who once owned the drawing) to John Ruskin in 1848. When the drawing was created, Effie and Millais were in love. Ah…so, has the artist depicted himself as the very-much alive broken-hearted suitor in a metaphorical scene of infidelity?

The figure on the right could be John Ruskin's father. The elder Ruskin was known as a dominating man who tried to control every aspect of his son's life. In fact, that seems to have been a family trait. The Ruskins were notably dysfunctional. Other historians contend that the ghost is actually a representation of Ruskin's grandfather, who committed suicide.

No matter what is depicted here, it is a remarkably powerful image. Surely, it was a difficult subject for Millais to draw—the marriage of his love to a man that he loathed. Perhaps that’s why the drawing is unfinished. It may have just been too painful for him to continue.

But, things looked up for Millais—briefly. Effie’s marriage to Ruskin was annulled in 1854—a year after the creation of this drawing--and she married Millais in 1855.

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