How a Millais Painting Wages Elegant Battle against Climate Change

(Manchester Art Gallery)





For anyone who adores the fall season, there is something of a child’s disappointment at Christmas delayed when, after months of brutal heat and humidity, the first week of October lands in temperatures near the high 80s. There are few if any, golden and amber-red leaves for nature to unwrap on tree branches. Instead, they fall to ground already burnt and brown, then are swept up in the raw, gurgled roar of leaf blowers.

All signs are ripe that fall’s days are shrinking in number. So we recreate the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” as poet John Keats described it, through reminders and clues. Pumpkin spice is our era’s monosodium glutamate (MSG), useful, intermittently tasty, but also loathed as a substitute for the authentic sensations of “the real thing” we used to get when fall arrived on schedule.

There is a certain painting that might do the trick, too. Decades before the advent of photography, families who could afford to hire professional artists took comfort in painting portraits of the deceased. With fall dying a slow death, why not do the same for our beloved season?

Pull up a chair, and drink in a long, extended view of John Everett Millais’s sumptuous 1856 work, Autumn Leaves. The original hangs in the Manchester Art Gallery in the once bleak industrial north of England, where the forecast calls for intermittent rain in the mid-60s all month. We can enjoy it from afar as well, even if the Midwest weather insists on keeping us on a low boil.

In his 2010 book Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, author Andrew Graham-Dixon describes in compelling detail the religious atmosphere of sixteenth-century Milan, Italy, in which Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was raised before his rise as a painter. The figure foremost in charge was Archbishop Carlo Borromeo, a pious man alarmed, as was the whole Roman Catholic Church, by the Reformation. Borromeo fortified his faith through “an intense, spectacularly visual imagination,” as Graham-Dixon puts it. Belief in Christ “depended essentially on a process of mental projection identical to that required in painting pictures.” Successful depictions of Christ’s sufferings were not just beautiful to behold. They could also save souls. Caravaggio heeded that call, and the history of western art evolved in his wake.

Fall will not be salvaged by one painting, but we can at least apply Borromeo’s concept to a secular analog. Successful depictions of fall are not just beautiful to behold. Perhaps by their example of what we are losing piecemeal, we might be spurred to preserve what we still have left of this precious season.

Art elitists hold Millais—and all his Pre-Raphaelite brothers—in general derision if not outright contempt. In their attempts to overstep the Renaissance values of fifteenth-century Italian art embodied by Raphael, the critics say, the Pre-Raphaelites went overboard in their depictions of the natural world. In this assessment, Millais was neither an innovator nor an influencer, just a talented painter of limited imagination. Along with Norman Rockwell and Disney illustrators, he delivers nothing but simple-hearted sentiment. This always seemed unfair to me, like searching for a reason to hate a film or book that, while perhaps working from the edges of mawkishness, still moves us. When the BBC in 2009 created a six-part television drama about Millais and other Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painters, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt, it was dubbed Desperate Romantics.

There is nothing desperate or overreaching about Autumn Leaves. Suffused in warm, autumn colors, it is soft as a whisper. Maybe the four girls—the two at left are expensively dressed in contrast to the two at right, with their working-class faces looking down—are too handsome and beguiling by half. What charges the work is the synergy between these figures, the smoke emanating at the left from the pile of leaves, and the sunset in the background at the top. Above all, literally and figuratively, is the sunset. British art critic John Ruskin, a considerable Millais fan himself, called it “the first instance of a perfectly painted twilight.”

Millais had his own thoughts, which we can safely discard for the simple reason that he created a work beautiful enough to transcend the thoughts of its creator: “[I] 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.”

Maybe some people meditate on burning leaves when praying or reflecting on life, suffering, joy, and the universe. For the rest of us, the painting as a whole is a gateway to sensations warm and chill, restful and restless, of time settling into sleep so it can slowly awaken into something new. It is no insult to say that if you stare at Autumn Leaves long enough you might feel like taking a nap. It contains that much comfort, and that much peace.

(Manchester Art Gallery)

There is one detail worth paying close attention to, however. Near the waist of the girl at far left, behind the smoke, there is a curious figure holding a long pole. Whether it is facing us or turning its back to us is uncertain. But it is there, lurking in the background, confusing the scene with nebulous intent. “Enjoy my painting,” Millais seems to say, “but stay on guard for what you cannot see clearly.”

Millais inserted a similar visual cue in what is arguably his most famous and beloved work, his 1852 painting Ophelia, drawn from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Drowning in a stream strewn full of flowers and grass, a strange face formed of leaves and branches looks on her with an eerie indifference. Every death has a silent witness, even if it might be only death itself.

A painting cannot give us back days of fall lost. But if we gaze at a painting capable of imparting its own unique sensations, we can at least travel to a different place of mind, a consciousness that might move us forward or even shake us to action. If this depiction of fall is worth our time, fall is worth preserving. Looking at Autumn Leaves we also join the long line of those who have stood before it since 1856, when it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy, or more recently, at the Manchester Art Gallery. In a small way and for a short time, all who have seen this work, even in reproduction, become brothers and sisters in the same vision. Maybe some of those witnesses to Millais’s great painting once pined, or pine as we do, for those days of walking in the crisp, open-air cathedral of the fall season.