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Millais's father was a gentleman from an ancient Jersey family, and his mother came from a family of well-to-do saddlers, so Millais grew up in a wealthy household.
He was considered an infant genius and was sent to London in the year 1838. At the age of nine, the Society of Arts awarded him a silver medal; at this time he was attending Sass's Art School.
He was the youngest student ever to be admitted to the Royal Academy Schools which he joined in 1840. In 1843 he won the silver medal for drawing from ancient models. This was followed in 1847 by the award of a gold medal for his painting The Tribe of Benjamin Seizing the Daughters of Shiloh. In 1846 Pizarro Seizing the Inca of Peru became his first work to be shown in a Royal Academy exhibition. The painting is now held by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
William Holman Hunt was also studying at the Royal Academy and the two young artists became friends. They were founder members, in 1848 of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and during 1848 and 1849 Millais was working on his first Pre-Raphaelite painting. This was Isabella, inspired by Keats's poem of the same name. Isabella is in love with a household servant but her brothers decide to murder him. She finds his body, removes the head and hides it in a pot of basil. However the painting shows a scene before her lover is murdered, when he is waiting at table. The painting is full of symbolism – for example, her lover is handing her a blood orange which is sliced as a symbol of the neck of a person who has been decapitated.
The painting draws on techniques of mediaeval art, which greatly influenced the Pre-Raphaelites. The perspective has much in common with mediaeval painting, as do the formal poses of the figures. In 1850 Millais showed his first fully realised religious painting at the Royal Academy exhibition. It is known as Christ in The House of His Parents (The Carpenter’s Shop). As previously, he used a great deal of symbolism but this time the symbolism was specifically Christian. The nails and wood in the picture remind us of the crucifixion and the young Christ has cut his hand on a nail. The Pre-Raphaelites were committed to being true to nature; Millais faithfully reproduced all the details of the scene by studying a London carpenter's shop.
In 1851 to 1852, Millais painted one of his most famous paintings – Ophelia which depicts the drowning of Ophelia in Shakespeare's Hamlet. He was frequently inspired by works of literature and Tennyson's poem Mariana provided the subject of another of his best-loved works. In 1855, Millais married Ruskin's previous wife, Effie Chalmers and they moved to Perth. His next major painting was Autumn Leaves, finished in 1856. But for a painter, the real marketplace was London and the couple moved back there in 1861. One of his most beautiful paintings of a young woman, was Stella (1868). His ability to capture the spirit of the subject led to a successful portrait painting practice and he painted many of the major figures of the day such as Tennyson, Disraeli, Gladstone and Carlyle.
At the same time, he produced some of the iconic Victorian images such as Bubbles, showing an angelic young boy looking up as a soap bubble, famously acquired by the Pears soap company and used in advertising, to the disapproval of the artist. Millais became a full member of the Royal Academy in 1853 and great public success continued as he became a baronet in 1885 and in 1896 achieved crowning professional success when he was elected president of the Royal Academy. He died soon after this and is buried in London, in St Paul's Cathedral.