The size is h.1,657 x w.2,197mm., the medium is oil paint on canvas and the artwork is owned by the Tate Britain art museum in London, to whom it was presented in 1945 by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest. Painstaking five months' conservation work was carried out in 2012, thoroughly restoring the artist's intended pictorial depth, vigorous colours and broad, expressive and almost impressionistic brushwork to the very flat and dirty painting found at the outset of the project. Impressed by Millais' similar painting, "Sisters", the year before, "Hearts are Trumps" was commissioned by the rich merchant and art collector, Walter Armstrong.
This painting is resplendent, leisured, tasteful and yet simultaneously rather intriguing. It features Armstrong's three pretty (perhaps their looks and surroundings have been somewhat flattered by the artist) young daughters, Elizabeth, Diana and Mary in luxurious and fashionable dresses, undoubtedly in an attempt to raise the social standing of the family to that of nineteenth-century nobility. The title of this delightful and delicate scene and the card game depicted subtly suggest some competition between the ladies, all in their twenties, as to who will marry first, a very important consideration for women of their social stratum, particularly in Victorian England.
Mary gazes directly and confidently at the spectator, perhaps a potential suitor, as she appears to be holding more of the trumps, and fittingly she married first in 1876 becoming Mrs. Ponsonby Blennerhasset. Her sisters followed suit (no pun intended!) later. Sadly, their poor father eventually declared bankruptcy and was forced to sell his art collection! The viewer is pulled into the scene with the dark oriental screen pushing the sisters forward and the table open-faced as if to invite him to join the game. Millais' composition and style emulate some of the works of the celebrated Sir Joshua Reynolds (see "The Ladies Waldegrave" of 1781), and even of the seventeenth-century Spanish master, Diego Velázquez. However, the former displays a brilliance of technique that is distinctly more 'modern' than that of his eminent predecessors. In 1878, "Hearts are Trumps" was exhibited at the prestigious Paris Exposition Internationale where Millais was awarded a Medaille d'Honneur.