National Portrait Gallery, London
Jazz Cafe, London NW1
The centrepiece of this exhibition is the 1854 portrait of the critic John Ruskin, posed above the waterfall at Glenfinlas in Scotland. Like so many vividly naturalistic Pre-Raphaelite works, it seems smaller than you'd imagine from reproductions, which increases its almost psychotic, hallucinatory intensity. "Selecting nothing, rejecting nothing", as Ruskin had advocated three years earlier, Millais painted among the midge-ridden, rain-drenched hills. Ruskin was into geology. He galvanised the easy-going Millais into a ferocious scrutiny of gneiss and shale and the reflections of Highland daylight on flowing water; the painting is as much a portrait of the rock and waterfall as of Ruskin. The painter was busy at this time falling in love with Effie, Ruskin's neglected wife (shown nearby in the exhibition as an adjunct to another waterfall). Given this state of affairs, perhaps Millais subconsciously wished to equate Ruskin with stone.
Along with Ophelia, the Ruskin portrait represents the apogee of Millais's Pre-Raphaelite phase, which lasted from 1848 for about 10 years. This period is further represented by some curious, almost comic pen-and-ink sketches of (rainy) life in the Highlands in the summer of 1853 (presaging his book illustrations of the following decade), and some tender, naive and scrupulous oils, after the fashion of Early Renaissance German masters. It was a soon-shed period in Millais's career - born in 1829, he was still only in his twenties. The pressure of Effie's determination for a comfortable lifestyle once they paired up in 1856 impelled him in another direction, for which his fellow Pre-Raphaelites never forgave him.
There is something glib, a bit too easy, about Millais. The boy wonder of the Academy in his teens, he seemed made to prove that the line of least resistance would always pay off. He was a monumentally talented draughtsman; this ability was matched only by the speed and proficiency with which he conquered the notoriously fiddly and unforgiving "wet-on- wet" technique of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
As the PRB saw it, Millais had abandoned the righteous tenets of Pre-Raphaelism, opting instead for worldly success, and a salary that would keep Effie's shopaholic tendencies satisfied. It didn't happen overnight, and in the 1860s he had to drudge away at book-illustrations, for his friend Anthony Trollope and others. Useful contacts were made in society, however, and the subsequent commissions, often children's portraits, became his entree to high society. These portraits strike an elegiac, melancholy note - but without the atmospheric backgrounds of Millais's earlier work, the children too often look sulky. A hectic flush, as of imminent fever, settles on the Pender sisters in Leisure Hours (1864) - or perhaps they've only just stopped running round the garden. Millais kept a keen eye on possible rivals. Compared to Whistler's pale-and-interesting girls in white, there's a robust British artsiness in Millais's no-nonsense draught-proof screen and the chunky goldfish.
Later, it was to be Joshua Reynolds, another fine portrayer of childhood's "pathos of innocence" that Millais wished to measure himself against - not least because so many of his clients possessed Reynolds's work. He also wanted to match Velsquez: the dashes of black in his portrait of Kate Perugini of 1880 suggest how the Spanish master haunted him, as does the heavy black of the dresses in the Twins, although the pose is much more self-conscious.
Millais's likenesses of politicos and church figureheads were immensely popular in their time: in the 1880s he was thought to be the most highly- paid painter in Britain. His earlier style was as if it had been buried (the Ruskin portrait remained unexhibited for 30 years until a retrospective in 1886).
What finally transpires is that Millais's later portraiture is unexceptionable. Don't rock the boat, play along, are the thoughts that seemed to have motivated him. There's a spooky sense of double-take as well, if Millais's brooding, rheumy-eyed Tennyson is compared in format to John Collier's portrait of Darwin of the same year (1881), on display upstairs; it's as if these bearded, jowly, serious Victorian faces were virtually interchangeable.
Millais was seen emerging from the 1886 retrospective in tears, after being confronted by the intensity of his early works; after this, in his later years, he occasionally produced some haunting landscapes of the Highlands and Moorlands in winter, and the elegiac tone returned. It was as if he was groping for that "pathos of innocence" that the 1850s works had in such great measure. By the end of his career, he had transformed himself into one of the dozen most effective portraitists in late-Victorian England. But he had started out as the great hope of what Ruskin termed a "new and noble school".
National Portrait Gallery, WC2 (0171 306 0055), to 6 June.Reuse content