This masterpiece has long been considered one of Millais’s finest child portraits, a genre in which the artist excelled. Few other painters of the period were able to capture the burgeoning inner life of their young sitters with such sympathy. Certainly Millais himself considered it one of his best pictures. In 1873 he sent it to the Welt-Ausstellung (the World's Fair) in Vienna, alongside Sisters, a portrait of his three daughters, which currently holds the world auction record for the artist (Christie’s, London, 11 July 2013, lot 9, £2,301,475, fig. 1).
The sitter was the daughter of Robert Lehmann who made a fortune supplying arms in the American Civil War. By 1869 he had settled at 15 Berkeley Square in London and developed advanced tastes. He was a distinguished violinist, and his wife a pianist. Together they entertained the finest musicians of their day: the violinist Joseph Joachim, and the conductor and founder of the eponymous orchestra, Charles Hallé were frequent visitors. Lehmann’s siblings were artists; Henri (1814-1882) trained under Ingres, and Rudolf (1819-1905) was a particular friend of Millais's. Their circle was also literary: the novelist Wilkie Collins was another intimate. Nina’s mother was the daughter of Robert Chambers, a publisher and founder of the Edinburgh Journal.
Painting for this rarefied milieu, Millais included the most fashionable props of the day. In the 1860s there was a growing interest in the art and culture of the Far East. Millais’s sitter sits atop a blue-jade and green earthenware pot, described by the reviewer of The Daily Telegraph as a 'China tub’ while Asian influence is confirmed by the red camelia she holds in her hands (from where the shrub originated). An enthusiasm for all things oriental was a key thread in the Aesthetic movement, then beginning to gather momentum in the English fine and decorative arts. Two Eurasian collared doves not only balance the composition, but lend a further note of exoticism to an interior rich in differing surfaces. Everything is held in careful equilibrium: the marble floor acts as a foil for the contrasting earthenware and terracotta pots, while Nina’s plain white dress is juxtaposed against the richly embroidered blue curtain behind. Critics noted the picture’s 'Whistlerian bravura’. Whistler had shown his Symphony in White, No 1: The White Girl in 1862 startling audiences with its modernity. Millais’s portrait perhaps provides a more chaste and innocent response. Certainly, in his handling of white Millais elicited Whistler’s admiration: a print of Millais’s Waking (1865, Perth Museum & Art Gallery), a picture of his daughter in bed, and a tour de force of contrasting whites, was hung in his Chelsea drawing room.
The portrait was also shown at the Grosvenor Gallery of 1884, where Millais exhibited another portrait of Nina, painted that year on the eve of her marriage to Guy Theophilus Campbell, 3rd Baronet (1854-1931). That picture was sold at Christie’s, London, 11 July 2013, lot 10, £481,875 (fig. 2). The portraits are exactly the same size and the later picture is cleverly conceived to act as a pendant. The older sitter is turned to the left to look back on her childhood self, but there are elements of continuity. She is again dressed in white, but instead of a turquoise necklace she wears a corsage of forget-me-nots. The orientalist thread continues by the inclusion of the blue and white china vase, as does the allusion to spring: tulips are included as opposed to a camelia. Again the sitter is perched rather than more formally seated, this time on an oak chest, and the backdrop used is a richly embroidered tapestry.
Reviewing the later work, Claude Phillips in the Academy wrote: 'It was a somewhat bold venture on the part of Mr Millais to have placed in juxtaposition his superb and well-remembered portrait of 'Miss Nina Lehmann' … and his new portrait of the same lady … The former is one of his most complete and admirable works, and is one to which Englishmen are glad to point as an example of perfect technique from the hand of one of their painters'.