Richard Miller painted Afternoon Tea in 1910 during a summer stay in Giverny, France where he was working closely with other members of the Giverny Group, a circle of American artists living and working in this area in the early twentieth century. An Impressionist painting with a distinctive twist, the work exhibits all of the hallmarks of Miller's mature style, most notable of which are the subject matter, bold color scheme, and prominent, textured brushstrokes.
Afternoon Tea is drastically different from Miller's early pictures which were characterized by experimental landscapes and academic portraits. It was conceived just as Miller's paintings were becoming "more colorful and animated, and increasingly depicted attractive, contemporary women" (M. L. Kane, A Bright Oasis, New York, 1997, p. 22). It was at this point that "the real subject of Miller's work--paint and the pleasure in its manipulation" (M. L. Kane, A Bright Oasis, p. 21). was becoming distinctly evident.
On top of these developments, Miller also began to explore the possibilities of expanding his palette and technique. It was in 1910, after about eleven years of living in France and gaining steady recognition for his work, that Miller "came into his own as a painter. Combining virtuosic brushwork and highly individual coloring with the subject he painted now almost exclusively--young women, singly or in pairs, in interiors--Miller established a distinctive style..... Miller painted a decorative canvas that is as much an interplay of sensuous textures, sinuous contours, and color harmonies, as it is a portrait." (M. L. Kane, A Bright Oasis, p. 30) Miller's daring use of color in Afternoon Tea immediately impresses the viewer. The cool green shadows on the sitters' shoulders, the brilliant red that blushes their cheeks, and the flecks of pink and violet on the ground are examples of the artist's artistic "license to use the colors in a highly subjective manner dictated by decorative pictorial considerations" (M. L. Kane, A Bright Oasis, p. 36). The round parasol is especially successful in unifying the composition. Mary Louise Kane has noted that "a frequent prop in Giverny Group paintings is the Japanese parasol, whose decorative properties--circular shape, ribbed structure, colorful surface designs--were exploited by Miller (and Frieseke) in particular..." (M. L. Kane, A Bright Oasis, p. 36) Of three renditions of the two models in the garden done on the same day, "Miller's version is the most dynamic, with slashing, swirling brushstrokes and multiple circular shapes activating the entire canvas--a new peak for him." (A Bright Oasis, p. 36)
To look at Afternoon Tea is to understand why Miller's work was immediately considered an achievement. Its departure from the artistic trends of its day and inherent aesthetic quality make it appealing without ramification.