Recently, the Berfrois Facebook feed shared Ford Madox Brown's 1846 portrait Millie Smith.
The more I looked at it the more I liked it and the less the browns of its palette came to seem merely muted or even deliberately drab and the more they came to seem homey, domestic. Yet there is an edginess, a tension, underlying the work. Is it a painting I would like to see daily on my wall? I think not, but that's as a matter of taste and not because I think it tells a dark tale. I think, on balance, it tells a positive one.
To me Millie looks strong but also tired, like she's an old soul, a little girl whose waters run deep.
Perhaps Millie in real life had a somewhat arresting effect on people by way of her bearing or personality.
I presume that the off proportions, the large head mainly, are deliberate and interpretive of the subject's personality, maybe even quasi-symbolic. It's hard to know, of course. Good artists are often aware of ambiguities that arise in their own work, but not always. And, of course, sometimes artists deliberately seek to manipulate the viewer. The off proportions may even have anticipated a gallery setting and been a technique to make you stop and simply notice—as if Millie is competing with the other paintings' subjects. (And perhaps she's worn out from but proud of the effort!) Or not.
I think that like many good paintings, Millie requires the viewer to linger a bit in order to see more. I think of the famous Wyeth painting as a particularly good example.
At first glance casual viewers today might find Wyeth's work Christina's World to be serene. Then they may or may not learn that the subject of the painting was paralyzed from the waist down. Christina's world is one of limited mobility. Is she dragging herself toward the house? Is she waiting for someone to leave from it to come and get her? The careful viewer, even without knowing the backstory, sees the hardness of some of the painting's strokes, edges, lines, the grey of the sky that is arguably slightly foreboding, that the buildings could do with a lick of paint, that there's frailty to Christina's arms, that (click the image to enlarge it) a ladder, an object Christina could never hope to use, rests against the front of the house, opposite the front door. Now Christina's World's bucolic qualities seem more like aspects of isolation.
With Millie Smith, I think perhaps the subject has just come in from outside. She's brought white flowers, their blossoms strong. And she has the willfulness to pull back the tablecloth but the intelligence and awareness to do so carefully to display the flowers. Did she also move her mother's vase aside? Somehow, I think her mother is not in the room.
I think it's late in the day. Millie's done for the day with her routines and outdoor play, and in a home financially secure enough that play is possible for her—it's not all work all of the time. And she's a secure little girl without much worry at the moment.
But that interpretation is in tension with one of artifice. She's been seated there, posed it would seem, her dress pulled down over her shoulders, a subject for the painter who now I'm uncomfortably aware of. Did Millie put on the red flower herself or did someone else put it on her?
Regardless, one thing remains no matter how much she is or is not in control of the scene: she has a strong sense of self that the painter is inviting us to at least recognize and almost certainly to admire.
Image: Ford Madox Brown (British: English, 16 April 1821–06 October 1893); Millie Smith; 1846; oil; paper on panel; 22.8 cm x 17.5 cm.; Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, United Kingdom.
Image: Andrew Wyeth (American, July 12, 1917–January 16, 2009); 1948; Christina's World; gesso, tempera; depicting Christina Olson and the Olson house; 2′ 8″ x 4′ 0″; Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York, United States of America.