From an early date Millais had shown an astonishing ability to capture the innocence of childhood. He began to explore the subject in 1856 when L'Enfant du Régiment (now in the Yale Center for British Art) was exhibited at the Royal Academy. The two well-known paintings My First Sermon and My Second Sermon (Guildhall Art Gallery), exhibited at the R.A. in 1863 and 1864, had been enormously successful, and were followed by equally appealing subjects in the same vein.
Portraits of children thus feature consistently throughout Millais’s œuvre, commencing with portrayals of the children of friends and acquaintances in the 1860s. Later in his career Millais often painted for more commercial reasons, and the pictures tend to be larger, with the aesthetic style and costume harking back to an earlier era, as in the present lot. Malcolm Warner comments that Millais’s child portraits become more clearly nostalgic from the 1870s onwards, with further references to the Georgian period. This shift occurred at a time in Millais’s career when the artist was striving to identify himself with the Old Masters, particularly Reynolds, whom he greatly admired later in his life. Warner remarks that ‘when he painted Dorothy Lawson in a white eighteenth-century costume against a wooded background, it was in homage to Reynolds as the canonical painter of childhood, one of the eighteenth-century inventors of the ‘age of innocence’’ (M. Walker, op. cit., p. 122). Millais therefore wished to offset the innocence of youth against a background of an earlier, and seemingly more virtuous, pre-industrial age.
Dorothy Lawson was the daughter of Harry Levy-Lawson, 1st Viscount Burnham, a newspaper proprietor and politician, and his wife Olive de Bathe. Dorothy’s mother commissioned the painting of Dorothy when she was five years old, and the work was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1891. In Millais’s captivating portrait, Dorothy is depicted clutching her skirt and holding a bouquet of flowers before a wooded backdrop.