Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Millais' Pizarro Seizing the Inca of Peru

"Pizarro Seizing the Inca of Peru" is another of Millais' early masterpieces. He was just 16 when it was completed! The painting features Atahualpa, the last sovereign leader of the Inca empire, being seized by the conquistador Francisco Pizarro. It's the only painting by Millais that I know of that is set in Latin America. Unlike his self portrait, it shows more of the fine detail that would become a hallmark of his later work.

The exhibition catalogue at the Tate arguest notes that pyramidal organization of the figures, baroque lighting and "groups of huddled women and children derive from religious pictures of the Renaissance and later neoclassical and Romantic history paintings"(Tate). I like the inclusion of the pineapple and plantain in the foreground of the painting--I wonder if Millais had ever tasted them, or if his mother had just found a picture of them in the British Museum?

One of the things that struck me most about this painting was the large role that Millais' family played in helping him prepare for it. His mother, Mrs. Millais spent hours in the British Museum Reading-Room researching the historical details for the picture (the textiles are actually fairly accurate, which surprised me). She also handmade all of the clothing for the models! Mrs. Millais would also entertain her son by reading to him while he painted, and her husband offered his assistance by posing in a variety of wigs for his son's paintings.

The Millais family loved helping their young son John with his paintings, although their constant involvement got on Millais' nerves at times. It bothered him that they called him "Johnny" when he was older, and they had a bad habit of using his studio as a living room. Waugh tells a great story in his biography of Rossetti about Millais' struggle for independence:

Rebellion was in the air in 1848, and one afternoon in early spring Mrs. Millais found the studio door locked against her. Inside, Holman-Hunt was lecturing Millais on the decadence of English painting.
Later in the evening the family became reconciled. Hunt and Millais went into the parlour to visit "the old people." Mrs. Millais sat crocheting in the armchair. Her needle clicked intently and the boys' entrance was allowed to pass unnoticed. Millais advanced into the room, swaggering ever so little; Hunt hung back rather ill at ease.
"Now, we've come to have a nice time with you, mama and papa," he said jauntily.
His mother hardly looked up from her work.
"We do not wish to tax your precious time. We have our own occupations to divert us and engage our attention!"
But Millais was not easily snubbed, as many people learned later.
"Hoity-toity, what's all this?" he cried affectionately, pressing a guitar into his father's hand. "Put down your worsted, amam, I'm going to play back-gammon with you directly."(Waugh, 31-32)

All was forgiven after the game of back-gammon, but it seems that Millais' parents tried to give their young son a little more artistic space afterwards. Millais' studio was left in peace, though his parents were still actively involved in helping him with his work.

Evelyn Waugh. Rossetti: His Life and Works. London: The Folcroft Press, 1969.
Image courtesy Tate Gallery


willow said...

Hmmm. Sounds like an early case of "stage mom". Heehee!

skatej said...

Haha...helicopter parents go back that far? Nice to know they're not necessarily a new phenomenon. Maybe Millais was more invested in this painting than the self-portrait and so concentrated more on the detail? Whatever the reason this is a marvelous painting.

Tracy said...

Hi, Margaret! We're just back from holiday...not getting over jet lag--LOL! Terrific to finally be visiting here again and reading your artilce. This piece by Millais is incredible...what an accomplishment at only 16!! Happy Days ((HUGS))

Margaret said...

I know--I can't believe what he was able to accomplish at just 16.

Thorsprincess said...

A member of the Royal Academy at age 11, and this remarkable work at age 16 attest to the incredible support he received from his family. Children do not produce classical studies without considerable direction, interest, and enthusiasm for helping them perfect their gifts without supportive families. The charming story just shows that at age 16 he was interested in having other friends and was growing up. His family was probably having so much fun that they hardly noticed! His subsequent conciliatory visit reveals his affection and enjoyment of their company. Their willingness to give him more room for other friends and privacy shows their underlying love and deep respect for their son. In no way would their behavior have been excessive or smothering--they were all too busy enjoying learning and sharing their son's enthusiastic love of painting to notice that he may have grown up a little, and needed a bit of space.

boba said...

Regarding the food items, Brazil had a vibrant trade economy with Great Britain during the 1800's. So it's likely that pineapples and probably plantains were available for consumption and even as props. Indeed, pineapples were a favorite among the British elite to cultivate in their conservatory gardens. The only problem is that pineapples did not (nor would not) grow in the Peruvian Andes so little bit of artistic license is in play there. The jaguar skin also is out of place. While the Aztec had a knight order based on that animal, placing it here is out of its historic geographic range. It's possible the skin could have come from a tribute item, but I suspect it's more likely that his sources conflated the earlier Spanish accounts of Aztec and Inca culture.
Nevertheless, it is an impressive work and demonstrates skill that few could match. I quibble with the Tate's catalogue, I see more Turner in that background than a baroque influence. The lighting is too bright, the contrast insufficient to fit into that category. Furthermore the background would be dark and the object of interest highlighted. Composition and structure in painting in the neoclassical era all but demanded that geometric plan. What I find most interesting are is the symmetric placement of the cross (in the priest's hand) and the feather on the figure's headdress. Was the artist saying something of the "nobility of savages" by placing the feather at a higher plane? Youthful idealism? Great socio-historical thread to pull there.

Margaret said...

Interesting about the pineapples! Jaguar have always been in Peru, though (even to this day). I think you're thinking Aztecs, perhaps, rather than Incas.

Anonymous said...

Oh my I had to chuckle at the parents. As a parent I know what a fine line it can be sometimes to encourage yet not interfere, and to help with homework yet not do it for your child.

I'm glad they managed to resolve things so he was allowed to grow up a bit more under their wing. It does sound like they cared and were trying to help and encourage but didn't know where the line was.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Amazing that his parents were so involved. My first thought was that I didn't realize stage mothers existed back then, but I suppose it was ever so. Making the costumes and wearing the wigs...wow, those are some strong ties to sever.

boba said...

I stand corrected on the cult of Chavin and jaguars in Moche culture. I still am unsure whether they were a prominent in the Inca repertoire, I'll consult our American Arts professor. The Inca as successors to the Moche should have adopted their motifs and style.
Jaguars are featured prominently in Aztec and Mayan art. The highest order of Aztec warriors were awarded a jaguar skin and thus called Jaguar warriors.

Fete et Fleur said...

I've had time to do some catch up on your blog. I wanted to say Happy Anniversary! Millais' work is extrodinary and wonderful!


A World Away said...

Well nothing like your family helping you paint! Hmmm well I guess not. Another fascinating post Margaret. I have a couple of questions about Walter Crane. Can I email you about them?

Margaret said...

You certainly may, Stephen! I'm not sure if I can help you, but I'll try!