The Woodman’s Daughter

Explore Sir John Everett Millais' dark composition

Woodmans Daughter by Sir John Everett MillaisGuildhall Art Gallery & London's Roman Amphitheatre

Sir John Everett Millais took the subject of this painting from a poem by his friend Coventry Patmore. The poem tells how the friendship between innocent Maud and the rich squire’s son ends in tragedy.

Millais painted the background out in the open in Wytham Wood near Oxford during the summer of 1850, but he added the figures of the children in his London studio during the winter.

They were probably professional models, but the stiffness of the boy’s figure suggests Millais could have painted it from a lay figure (a sort of dummy).

Millais painted the little girl’s boots from a pair which had belonged to a little girl named Esther, who lived in a cottage near Wytham Wood – he had them sent up to him in London, and sent her mother some money to buy a new pair.

He also arranged to have a child’s old pinafore dress sent to him to paint.

He painted the strawberries from some bought at Covent Garden Market in March 1851 – as they were out of season they were very expensive.

Millais’ original Pre-Raphaelite technique (used in the landscape background) meant he could not make alterations, but by 1886 he had long given up that manner of painting.

In that year, his half-brother (who then owned the picture) and Coventry Patmore persuaded him to repaint the little girl’s face.

Millais seems to have taken the opportunity at the same time to strengthen the paint around the figures, and the noticeable discolouration of this repaint has led to a curious 'shadow’ effect which now makes it look as if the figures are standing in front of a backdrop.

This discolouration has happened over time, and Millais would never have seen this effect himself.

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