Painting of the month for May 2015

Hearts Are Trumps

1872. Oil on canvas Tate Britain, London

Despite being a lover of Millais I had somehow been ignorant of this painting until a recent tour at the Tate Britain, and I instantly knew that it would be my next POTM. John Everett Millais (1829-96) was a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a reform movement against the ‘Academic’ art of the mid-1800s. The group of artists were all quite different in style but were united through a love of Medieval and literary subject matter. Millais stood out as painter of outstanding technique, being able to capture a high degree of realism and naturalism. Not long after the PRB was founded in 1848 Millais’ works took a diversion from the Brotherhood’s doctrine and he began to look around him for inspiration.

Hearts Are Trumps is a portrait which at first glance is a pretty and light picture, full of fluffy detail and pastel colours. But there is a narrative behind the surface. The three young ladies are Elizabeth, Diana and Mary, the daughters of writer and collector Walter Armstrong. We interrupt a game of cards. Dressed fashionably and identically apart from their ribbon chokers, their clothes do not reflect their state of activity. They look bored, as if killing time at a dull party. On the left Elizabeth, the youngest girl, has her head down examining her cards. Diana in the middle looks at her the eldest sister Mary, who is showing us her hand. The title tells us that Hearts Are Trumps, and she has many of them. She is the only one to look out at us, her gaze is bold and almost unfriendly. But without her confident gaze there would be little intrigue about the painting. The two elder girls have been set in front of  a wooden screen decorated with oriental images, it’s dark solidity creating an extreme contrast with their pale faces and the candy tones of their dresses. The youngest girl sits before an array of white star-shaped flowers, which illuminate her youth and beauty. There is a double meaning in their card game; the three sisters are all playing the marriage game too. At a time when young ladies were expected to make a good match in a husband (title and wealth being prized highly) it is not surprising that the sisters are not looking overjoyed to be in each other’s company. They are in competition. All three are beautiful, with English rose complexions and those curved pouty lips which the PRB sought out in their muses. They exude breeding, elegance and wealth, exactly what their suitors would have been looking for in a potential wife.

Portraits of this kind were very popular at the time, advocated by the likes of Joshua Reynolds, who the Pre-Raphaelites called ‘Sir Sloshua’ and vehemently rejected. But unlike Reynolds rather sentimental works Millais has charged this painting with substance. It has an underlying narrative of society and above all he has observed human nature perfectly. To me the whole image has a feel of a tapestry, especially upon close inspection where you can see the flurrying brushwork. The colours make a symphony and the rich textures reduce the definition between the different surfaces. I love the composition, how the table is not square and how the dresses all merge into one beneath the girls. The layout is at once considered and almost accidental. These things are very un-Reynoldsian, and separate Millais from the sentimental and saccharine mode of Victorian portraiture.

"John Everett Millais - Hearts are Trumps - Google Art Project" by John Everett Millais - EAGd5fDX22th8w at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum Tate Images ( Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -