Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Leisure Hours and Victorian Consumption

Leisure Hours by John Everett Millais, 1864, Detroit Institute of Arts.
Please click on the image to view at full resolution.
John Everett Millais' Leisure Hours of 1864 is a gorgeous painting: the textiles and colors faithfully represent the concerns of the time, however, it is in the sinister aspects of the painting which makes this one stand out above others.
The first item noticed are the sumptuous dresses the girls wear: the red velvet and Millais' handling of the material is exquisite; yet "red" is the color of the appetites, and taken with the young age of the girls--their postures and their gazes--we should be alerted that this is no ordinary portrait painting. The green carpet on the floor could represent "hope" (since green is the color of spring and rebirth), yet it looks more like artificial grass, and if we take a more likely understanding of the symbolism, the green means "envy," and that is the foundation of the girls' lives.
Millais was forced to leave the art group, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, with
which he was associated because the champion critic of the group, John Ruskin,
would not consummate his marriage to Effie, who left Ruskin for Millais, which, you
can imagine, caused an outrageous scandal in society and somewhat
blackened Millais' reputation.
The appetite the red signifies is the dress itself: an appetite for the material wealth of the Victorian era which, for the two children in the painting, was going to be founded on greed and envy of others in their social class.
But it gets worse.
The very frontal, forward-looking gaze of the girl on the left resembles the gaze of Edouard Manet's 1863 scandalous painting Olympia which depicts a prostitute in her "place of business" looking at a customer who has brought flowers to her.
The scandal by which all other scandals are measured is Manet's Olympia
of 1863, today in Musee d'Orsay, Paris, France.
The look doesn't strike us as scandalous today, but in 1863, it had broken the wall existing between the viewer and the subject within the art.  Worst of all, knowing that she is looking at her "customer," she's looking at us! We are the ones placed inside the boudoir of the courtesan, whether we want to be there or not. In 1863, critics wrote that the only reason the painting wasn't torn to tatters by spectators was the precautions authorities had taken to prevent a riot.
In contrasting the girl on the left-side of Leisure Hours with Olympia, the blue ribbon in her hair invokes the choker around Olympia's neck, and the "exposed" foot of the little girl, hanging out in a very un-lady-like way, suggests--not particularly that she will prostitute herself for fine material pleasures later in life, as Olympia has prostituted herself--but that her appetite for the finer things in life will make her licentious in her drives and ambitions. In this manner, the decorative screen behind the two girls literally "screens out" everything that is behind the screen: notice the edging of the screen on the left margin of the canvas and how it blocks from the girls everything that doesn't belong in this created world of the painting, similar to the "masking" of the Elephant Man, John Merrick in the film The Elephant Man (please see The Ugly Face of British Imperialism: The Elephant Man for more on how "masks" work). 
But the edging on the screen suggests that it has been pulled back, and not everything can be kept out of this world of beauty and leisure which the two girls occupy. Since something lurks behind the screen, we can understand the "hidden" foot of the girl on the right side, her "withdrawal" into herself as a result of her privileged lifestyle and material comforts. Further, her sideways glance suggests that she will look at everything that way, i.e., askew.
The flowers, of course, full of symbolism as always: will the girls grow to a maturation and individuation which the virtues of flowers symbolize, or will the training in virtue wither and die like the flowers scattered on the carpet?
The redundancy in the pattern on the screen suggests a redundancy about what the screen hides: epidemics in poverty, child-labor and illness. The Victorian Era was a time of peace, prosperity and refined taste in the arts, but it was also a terrible time to be poor. The pattern on the screen suggests the kind of pattern of "dealing with" the poor, the ignorant children, and sick and insane, in terms of numbers, institutions and dark shadows.
Ultimately, the Victorian world the two girls occupy is very much like the bowl before them: an artifishal world. The girls will grow up, because they need not fear the illnesses plaguing the children of the lower-classes, and they will find successful husbands who will provide for their expensive tastes they have acquired as a result of their upbringing, and they, in turn, will bear children who will be even worse than they themselves.

The two goldfish mirror the two girls, trapped in a shallow world, completely cared for by the outside of which it has no consciousness; the fish, then, represent a "world within a world," and it should be recalled that the year after Leisure Hours was finished, Lewis Carroll published Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
It's Millais' juxtaposing of the casual posture of the girls with the expensive dresses they don, because if those were special gowns just for the occasion they wouldn't be lounging on the floor; yet these are girls accustomed to luxury and anything less than that will not be acceptable o .  But there is a terrible alternative, that these are only "leisure hours," and the hours are about to be up, and the rest of the screen will come down, revealing the ugly reality kept at bay. If we consider the two girls in this light, they might be two faces of the emerging England as a result of the material consumption by the few, and the dire poverty of the many.