Millais began painting the landscape for The Blind Girl on a visit to Winchelsea in Sussex in 1854. It was not completed until two years later when the artist moved to Perth, Scotland when he added the two figures into the painting. Mathilda Proudfoot was the model for the blind girl, replacing Effie Ruskin who Millais first used as the model, and Isabella Nicol as her sister.
In sharp contrast to Millais’ detailed observation of the painting’s picturesque backdrop and his use of exceptional colour, the girl’s blindness becomes more profound. From underneath her head shawl, the note is just visible “pity the blind”. Unable to see the scenic landscape that surrounds her, the girl instead relies on her other senses; she reaches out to feel the grass beneath her and with her head slightly lifted the warm sun illuminates her face.
The painting is seen to be addressing pressing social issues in 19th century England, vagrancy and disability, especially among children and young people. Instead of criminalising the two girls, Millais portrays them as victims and arouses our sense of compassion for the two sisters. A number of contemporaries described The Blind Girl as a contemporary treatment of a religious subject, likening the two figures to Mary and child.