Millais’s marvellous powers of observation and his greater assurance of technique made him the immediate front-runner of the pre-Raphaelite group. When his painting Isabella, based on Keats’s Isabella; or the Pot of Basil, was shown at the Academy in 1849, its garish colour and simplified design caused widespread controversy. Part of the shock was Millais’s inclusion in the painting of actual known people rather than professional models, an unsettling combination of an archaic story and contemporary life.
It was followed the next year by Millais’s first important religious composition, Christ in the Carpenter’s Shop, a work of disconcerting weirdness painted in a real carpenter’s workshop. It includes the realistic detail of a journeyman with dirty toenails, a St Anne with red, swollen, washerwoman’s hands and, most offensive of all, a boy Jesus depicted as an Ashkenazi Jew with bright red hair. Charles Dickens warned the readers of Household Words to prepare themselves “for the lowest depths of what is mean, odious, repulsive and revolting”. Queen Victoria entered the controversy, asking for the painting to be brought to Windsor Castle for a private viewing. Millais wrote to Holman Hunt: “I hope it will not have any bad effects on her mind.” (How she responded to it is not known.)
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