John Everett Millais - Mariana

by Sarah Baur


The Pre-Raphaelites, who included John Everett Millais, were known for staging religious themes in their paintings. However, after interest in this seemed to be lost, the group of artists turned their attention to the painterly interpretation of lyrical works. Not only classics such as William Shakespeare were allowed to be represented, but especially the poetry of contemporaries such as that of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, which thus, through its topicality, also soon renewed enthusiasm for the paintings. Millais' Mariana even connects both literary giants in a certain way. Indeed, the painting was inspired by Tennyson's poem of the same name, which in turn was based on a character in Shakespeare's play Measure for Measure. In his work, Tennyson describes the dreary existence of Mariana, who spends her time on a lonely estate waiting longingly for her fiancé Angelo. Angelo has lost interest in her after her dowry sank into the sea in a shipwreck and has banished her to the secluded domicile. There, day in and day out, Mariana hopes in vain for Angelo's return.

When the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1851, Millais added lines from Tennyson's poem to his work:


"She only said, 'My life is dreary,

He cometh not,' she said;

She said, 'I am aweary, aweary,'

I would that I were dead!'"


The painting shows a view of Mariana's lonely chambers in a medieval setting. In the center, the protagonist has just risen from her low stool to take a moment's respite from her busy embroidery work. She is dressed in a deep blue plain velvet dress with a golden belt and has gathered her blonde hair in a simple updo. The floral tapestry she was busy with a moment ago lies on a narrow table in front of her, which is located in a window alcove. She curls her body back slightly and presses her hands on her lower back, obviously to relax her rigid muscles after sitting for so long. With a lethargic gaze, she looks out the bay window in front of her into a garden landscape. Energetically, she seems to have finally pinned the needle, in which a blue thread still hangs, vertically on the fabric. The embroidery itself - a sea of flowers on a green background - is reflected in the autumnal trees and bushes outside the window. The foliage - a clear symbol of transience and decay - has even reached Mariana's room, where scattered leaves can be found everywhere.


Millais took a few artistic liberties in his painterly interpretation of the poem, such as embroidery. This can not be found in the poetic original. Rather, Millais may have drawn inspiration for this from Tennyson's ballad The Lady of Shalott, whose protagonist is in a similarly predicament as Mariana and passes the time with a weaving. Thus Millai's painting visualizes a parallel between the two sufferers, who only passively observe life from their chambers instead of actively participating in it.


However, the artist has apparently also taken smaller details of the poem to heart and integrated them painterly into his work: For the mouse in the lower right corner of the picture directly above the dating and signature of the artist, is a direct allusion to the poem:


"All day within the dreamy house,

The doors upon their hinges creak'd;

The blue fly sung in the pane; the mouse

Behind the mouldering wainscot shriek'd,

Or from the crevice peer'd about."


As bleak and decaying as Tennyson describes Mariana's surroundings in his poem, Millais also stages her chambers in his quiet painting without relinquishing his artistic expertise. Both the poet and the painter intended this to reflect the protagonist's inner misery. Millais skillfully employs a diffuse autumnal light and demonstrates his sense of attention to detail, which is presented, for example, in the precise elaboration of various materials and fabrics. The earth tones of autumn dominate the painting's color scheme with a clear color intensity. The rich blue of Mariana's garment thus contrasts harmoniously as a glimmer of hope with her decaying muted surroundings.


The warm soft light of the afternoon sun and Mariana's posture, in which she stretches her back in exhaustion, suggest that not only did she sit all day at her elaborate embroidery but also that every other day probably follows the same monotonous pattern. The pose that Millais chose for Mariana on the one hand arouses a discreet erotic appeal by stretching her body and thus emphasizing her feminine figure under the fitted dress; on the other hand, however, the posture makes clear how tormented Mariana has become by the days of waiting and hoping in vain. This is also reflected in her gaze, which looks less hopeful or expectant out into the distant nature, but rather exhausted and resigned into the actual emptiness of her wounded heart. This gaze sweeps past a colorful stained glass window, which Millais has based very much on that of the Merton College Chapel in Oxford. A lettering in the side pane - In coelo quies (In heaven there is peace) - suggests that Mariana will only finally find peace in death, and here in the painting, as in the poem, she is already entertaining thoughts of mortal redemption:


"She said, 'I am aweary, aweary,'

I would that I were dead!'"


John Everett Millais - Mariana

Oil on mahogany, 1851, 59.7 x 49.5 cm, Tate Britain, London