When Millais painted Pensive in 1893 he was the most lauded artist in Britain, its most sought-after portraitist, and a painter who continued to challenge himself in producing large-scale and increasingly epic landscapes annually, outdoors in Scotland. He exhibited the present work at the Royal Academy that spring with a slightly smaller pendant, Merry, alongside a portrait of his old friend, the comedian John Hare (The Garrick Club), and the subject picture, The Girlhood of Saint Theresa (private collection). That same year Millais would show Bubbles (fig. 1, on loan to Lady Lever Art Gallery) and six other important pictures at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This was the world’s most important art fair of the year and the largest display of his work in the United States in his lifetime. He received high praise in the American press, and would earn a medal for specific merit. In addition, with the death of his early patron, Thomas Combe of Oxford (1796-1872), a number of Millais’s Pre-Raphaelite-era pictures went on public view as part of the Combe bequest to the Ashmolean, including The Return of the Dove to the Ark, 1851.
It is possible that Pensive found Millais in a retrospective mood, looking back at trends that he had done much to initiate and promote in British Art. It is a picture that combines an acknowledgement of the Georgian portraiture of the age of Reynolds, the Victorian predilection for images of children, the looseness of subject and handling of the Aesthetic Movement and an incipient interest in psychology. No mere retread, Pensive explores these three roots of late-nineteenth century artistic production with a resolute seriousness, and a command of paint that was the envy of Millais’s rivals. There is no artist of the period more committed to giving his child subjects a sense of inner life, and that is very much evident in this picture.
Pensive reveals Millais’s brushwork in its most athletic state – the artist worked alla prima, or quickly and in wet glazes upon wet glazes, without underdrawing. The only painter who could challenge his technique at the time was John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), who also specialized in child subjects. His works such as Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose of 1885-6 (fig. 2, Tate) similarly traded in an Aesthetic Movement focus on subjectless pictures favouring beauty for beauty’s sake, chromatic experimentation, and finding connections between children, nostalgia, ideas of innocence, and nature. Pensive takes these ideas and leavens them with the type of formal experimentation that James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) pursued, in portraits such as that of Mrs Frances Leyland of 1871-4 (fig. 3, The Frick Collection), with its classical profile, Japonisme décor and cropping, and air of introspection. To this Millais added his particular gift for imbuing his child subjects with a sense of inner life, something less evident in Sargent’s work, as his commissioned child portraits needed to convey a likeness and more of a sense of realism (B.D. Gallati, Great Expectations: John Singer Sargent Painting Children, Brooklyn Museum, 2004). Despite the categorization of works such as Pensive as ‘fancy pictures’ – idealized subjects, often in natural settings, inspired by the Georgian Golden Age of British Art – Millais’s girls are not simply dolls in fancy dress, but figures of consideration, at times heavy-lidded, their heads inclined, and ruminative.
Pensive compares well with the summit of Millais’s achievements in the last years of his life, including Bubbles and ‘The Little Speedwell’s Darling Blue’ (fig. 4, 1892, Lady Lever Art Gallery). The latter was exhibited at the Academy the previous year, and bears tonalities consistent with his late landscapes, such as the suggestive and symbolic Dew-Drenched Furze (1889-90, Tate), revealing the artist to be seeking a spiritual dimension as his health declined. The Art Journal described the work as bearing ‘a scheme of purple-violet’, and the opalescent background, marked by wisps of vegetation and a mother-of-pearl tonality, is evident also in ‘The Little Speedwell’s Darling Blue’. It is a channelling of similarly washed and inexact backgrounds in the works of Thomas Gainsborough and Reynolds, but also presages the abstract devices and decorative formal experimentation that became paramount in European symbolism of the period, and a presiding concern of modernist artists in the following Century.
In 1895 Colonel J. W. Cameron (1841- 1896) of Greenbank, Hartlepool, who served in the 4th Durham, Western Division, Royal Artillery, and as Mayor in 1889-90, purchased the picture along with Merry direct from Millais for 1,400 guineas without copyright. Cameron, who had moved to Hartlepool in 1865, took over the running of the Lion Brewery in 1872 and bought it outright in 1893, was building a picture collection. He consulted with the history and genre painter Arthur Stockdale Cope (1857-1940), who would paint his portrait in that same year (R.A., 1896, no. 611, Hartlepool Museums and Heritage Service). Cope wrote to him concerning the possible purchase:
'I thought you’d like those two pictures – I had to go & see Millais on other matters just before I left & was glad to have another look at them….He (Millais) is a very big man – I heard Leighton said that he was head and shoulders above any painter of his time or century. I rather doubt if you would get those two pictures for 1200. If I were you I would not offer less than 1400 gs for the pair, or he might decline altogether. He knows they are worth more – or will be – than the gs 800 he is asking apiece…’ (Letter, A.S. Cope to Colonel Cameron, dated ‘Carlton Colville/Nr. Lowestoft,/Aug. 3, 1895.’).
Considering that Cameron paid 1400 for them, it is possible that Cope worked with Millais to get the price he wanted. In 1951 Sir Alfred Munnings (1878-1959), working from photographs, wrote to the Cameron family, offering that Pensive, then hanging in the dining room at Cowesby Hall, Thirsk, which was bought by the family in 1946, would be worth at least £1,000. It has since passed down in the family to the present owner.
We are grateful to Jason Rosenfeld, Distinguished Chair and Professor of Art History, Marymount Manhattan College, New York, for providing this catalogue entry.