Sisters was Millais's prime contribution to the important Royal Academy of Arts exhibition of 1868 in which the nascent Aestheticist movement cemented its presence on the London art scene. It is also his most important picture to appear at auction in many years. The artist attempted to solidify his reputation as a nimble and advanced portraitist with this painting of his three eldest daughters in matching white dresses, against a bombastic backdrop of blooming garden foliage. It represents the artist's continued interests in the evolving English Aestheticist movement, his promotion of the artistic tradition of eighteenth-century British portrait painting as part of the broader Georgian revival in the arts of the period, as well as a sophisticated realist response to transformations of classicism in contemporary British art.
Millais posed his chestnut-haired daughters Mary, on the left aged eight, Effie, ten, and Alice Caroline (called Carrie), five, in white muslin dresses crossed with fichus, or triangular shawls, of a lighter shade of white, and trimmed with bold blue ribbons and pearls knitted to the dress collars. They wear headbands in a similar blue shade. Following Millais family practice, the dresses were likely made, or at least embellished, by his wife Effie and the girls. In the background, crimson-pink, vermilion-pink, and white azaleas hover along with a crush of green foliage just above their heads. The independent-minded Mary, who would remain Millais's favourite all his life, stands a bit apart on the left in three-quarter profile with her right hand across her waist and her left hand in the eldest daughter Effie's right hand, while Carrie (on the right) links her right arm with Effie's, and is the only girl to make eye contact with the viewer. Mary stares off the canvas to the right, while Effie looks fixedly out to the left. In Carrie's left hand is a corded small hoop and two sticks for use in the garden game La Grace, a French import to English pastimes in the period. This complements the elegant Georgian air of the picture.
The picture is also emblematic of the complete and assured transformation in Millais's technique, from the hard-edged precision of Pre-Raphaelitism, through the broader yet careful application of calculated tints in mid-1850s masterpieces such as Autumn Leaves (Manchester City Art Gallery) and The Blind Girl (Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery), to the bravura brushwork and smoothly worked faces of the mid-1860s.
Millais might have had in mind any number of other works when composing this picture, including Thomas Gainsborough's elegant image of linked adolescent grace against a natural backdrop, Elizabeth and Mary Linley of circa 1772 at the Dulwich Picture Gallery (fig. 1).
Thus Sisters formed a nod to Millais's Georgian predecessors in the genre, a trend in his art that reached its peak in 1872 with his Hearts are Trumps: Portraits of Elizabeth, Diana, and Mary, Daughters of Walter Armstrong, Esq. (Tate, fig. 2). In addition, considering the soft white gowns that the girls wear in Sisters, it recalls any number of classical representations in marble of the Three Graces. This also joined the newly established tradition of works composed in blocks of white as abstracted images of female beauty minted by James McNeill Whistler in his Symphony in White series of the 1860s, and modern meditations on timeless classicism in works by Albert Moore such as Azaleas (1867-8, Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin), exhibited at the Academy in the same year. The art critic Marion H. Spielmann, in his catalogue to Millais's memorial exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1898, referred to it as an important work, the first to display the artist's power of "combining figures, simply yet effectively placed." At the same time, it represented a novel element in the artist's practice - that of employing his daughters in repertory in his pictures. On the one hand they served as cheap if not always compliant models for his marketable pictures, but their inclusion in Millais's pictures is also indicative of Millais's great affection for his offspring. While it would have been unseemly in the period for a male artist to depict himself with his children as female artists such as Berthe Morisot were able to, Millais's inclusion of his own children in his art was his way of displaying patriarchal pride and sentiment.
Millais's aspirations for the picture, beyond selling it, was that it should form a demonstration of both his technique and his continuing redefinition of standards of beauty in his developing realist portrait practice in the period. To that end, he worked with the picture's owner during his lifetime, C.P. Matthews (discussed below), to showcase it at important international exhibitions. It was seen at South Kensington in 1871, Vienna in 1873 with his similarly intense Portrait of Nina Lehmann of 1868-9 (private collection), and then along with nine other of the artist's pictures at Paris in 1878, where he won a gold medal for his work in general, and was created Officer of the Légion d'Honneur.
In William Holman Hunt's memoirs, published in 1905, the former Pre-Raphaelite Brother lamented the fall in prices for Millais's pictures in the decade after his death in 1896, and bemoaned the consequent drop in reputation this entailed:
"Examples of the blundering of the picture market might be cited without end. Had the prevailing taste always to be deferred to, we in our early days should at once have abandoned any idea of reform in art, but instead we should have imitated Frost, Howard, or Etty, and so subscribe to the dealers' existing standard. The right use of the auction list is not to settle the real value of pictures, but the uprising or downfalling of the taste of the buyer. I am told that Millais' transcendent picture of 'The Three Sisters,' when last under the hammer, was knocked down for about £600, while paintings no more exquisite, and certainly not so perfect in condition, by the three great portraitists of the end of the eighteenth century, realised sums from ten to thirty thousand guineas. Time has always heretofore retrieved the fallen fortunes of supreme works. It has also sometimes pulled down meretricious paintings set in high place by a fashionable coterie. It would be unaccountable if years did not bring the price list for such pictures as that of 'The Three Sisters' to accord with the valuation set by just discrimination upon all supreme works".
As ever, Hunt's judgment of his closest friend's pictures and importance was impeccable. Millais's 'transcendent' Sisters is indeed a supreme example of the artist's faultless sense of colour, composition, and the modern, in his realistic approach to portraiture, in the developing trend for artificial and claustrophobic settings, and his interest in the latest fashions. It set a benchmark for a new approach to portrait painting that brought figures forward in square frames, gave children a sense of emotional complexity and inner life, and bore an elegant broken brushwork that represented an English response to trends in contemporary continental art and anticipated and laid the groundwork for the evocative portraiture of Sargent and Whistler in the next generation of artists.
The picture had a distinguished provenance in Millais's lifetime. It was initially owned by Charles P. Matthews (1819-91), of the early-eighteenth century Bower House in Havering-atte-Bower near Romford in Essex. He was a Justice of the Peace and brewer, as managing partner of the firm of Ind, Coope, and Co. of Romford, Essex. Like Millais, he had a daughter named Alice. Matthews bought the picture from Agnew's, who did a consistent business in Millais's works in the period. He also owned William Holman Hunt's The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple (Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery), The Afterglow in Egypt (Southampton City Art Gallery), and The Lantern-Maker's Courtship (Manchester City Art Gallery). He bought Aestheticist works by Frederic Leighton such as Kittens (sold in these Rooms, 24 June 1998, lot 31), The Music Lesson (Guildhall Art Gallery), lent to Paris in 1878, and four other works by the artist. He also owned Millais's A Flood (Manchester City Art Gallery), The Ransom (Getty Institute), and Early Days (sold in these Rooms, 11 June 2003, lot 8). He formed a well-known collection of modern art, including works by William Etty, John Frederick Lewis, William Orchardson, and Paul Falconer Poole, at Bower House and Hertford Street in London. Around the time that Millais was working on Sisters, Matthews tried unsuccessfully to get a reticent and undependable Dante Gabriel Rossetti to paint him an image of Medusa, or a subject from the life of Dante, in an ultimately futile attempt to secure pictures from each of the three primary Pre-Raphaelites.
After Matthews' death, Sisters then entered the collection of Charles Edward Lees (1840-94) of Werneth Park, Oldham, son of the M.P., Eli Lees. He was a spinning and textile manufacturer and involved in the cotton, coal, and iron industries. He was an original Governor of the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, and gave many watercolours to Oldham Art Gallery in 1888. After his death, Sisters passed to his wife Dame Sarah Anne Lees (1842-1935), who was very generous in lending her works to major exhibitions. She served on the Oldham Town Council and went on to become the first female Mayor of Oldham in 1910 - the house at Werneth Park sports a Blue Plaque in her honour. She lent a collection of her pictures to the Mappin Art Gallery in Sheffield in 1904. The Lees' younger daughter Margory (1878-1970), like her mother, was a key figure in the Women's Suffrage movement in Britain. The family donated the estate to the Oldham Borough Council in 1936, and it features an impressive memorial dedicated in the next year to Sarah Lees and designed by the sculptor W. Hargreaves Whitehead. The eldest daughter, Dorothy, married the Rev. C. Prodgers and their eldest daughter, Eva, inherited the picture. It is unsurprising that the Lees kept the painting after Charles Edward's death - as a female-dominated family, Millais's sensitive yet forceful portrayal of his three daughters was a model of fortitude and unity that the progressive Lees women likely appreciated in the midst of their remarkable and activist politics of the early twentieth-century.
We are grateful to Jason Rosenfeld, Distinguished Chair and Professor of Art History, Marymount Manhattan College, New York, for providing this catalogue entry.
The author wishes to thank Charlotte Gere, and Catherine Howell of the V&A Museum of Childhood for their assistance in writing this entry.