"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