My First Sermon by John Everett Millais was exhibited at the Royal Academy (RA) in 1863, and on 3 May, at the Academy banquet. The picture was painted in the old church located at Kingston-on-Thames, in London, where the parents of the artist lived, before the removal of the old highbacked pews. At this time, Millais was at the top of his powers in terms of technical skill and physical strength, and the force and speed of his execution were amazing on this painting.
Millais was very fond of kids, particularly his own children. He often used his daughter Effie as his model. The artist had already painted kids; for instance, in The Woodsman's Daughter (executed in 1850-1851), but My First Sermon marks the beginning of several popular ones in which a kid is seen as the centre of attention. The painting made its mark by showing this kid in her red cloak and trim, soft furry muff, as well as a good bright splash of colour in a dim church and her short legs in the red stockings, supported for the child, seriously concentrating on the sermon.
In the painting, the poignancy typically comes from guessing it's all over her head. There is also a touch of humour, which will be more clear in My Second Sermon, which is its later companion piece when the child has stopped trying to concentrate and is seen sleeping. Other examples of pictures of the artist's affectionate dwelling on one kid subject include Bubbles (1865-1866) and Little Speedwell's Darling Blue (1891-1892).
The painting was very popular. Millais was proud of the picture that before going North that year, he produced an oil copy of the painting, taking two days (morning to night) to complete; the artist didn't even breaking off to take lunch. He executed it quickly and perfectly. This was a great achievement since the copy displayed nearly similar high finish as the first painting. As soon as the copy was finished, it was sold and the artist received £180. The artist's mastery of expression is more evident in this painting. In the face of the child, Millais' unique power of seizing the look of inward consciousness and the soul lighting the features is seen in its full purity in children's sweet faces of children.