Date of this Version
The Vale of Rest, 1859, despite or because of its oddities—two nuns digging a grave—was in its own day understood as a touchstone for Sir John Everett Millais and his career. Its critical reception in 1859 was hostile, with charges of “ugliness,” but by 1897, it was hanging in the Tate museum. Scholars and biographers have accordingly seen it as a turning point in Millais’s abandonment of Pre-Raphaelite realism for a more aestheticized and bourgeois style. The subject of nuns has led other scholars to investigate Millais’s sympathies with the Oxford Movement, the midcentury effort to reform the Anglican church and bring it closer to Catholicism, to understand how The Vale of Rest’s initial rejection and ultimate acceptance might fit into Victorian attitudes toward religion.
It is the goal of this project to bridge the gap between what is commonly understood about this painting and a historical, biographical, and political context that supply the work with a less ambiguous narrative. Millais’s biography, his place within the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the public’s reaction to the Oxford Movement, and the suspicion of private burial under new reform laws together illuminate this painting’s place in British history while simultaneously creating a curious duality. The engagement with realism and symbolism, masculinity and femininity, and ultimately religious sympathy and erotic desire destabilizes the seemingly conventional reading of this work as a memento mori. What this research concludes is that the painting’s elusiveness, created by the tension between its contemporaneity and its symbolism, continues to be the most important signifier of its meaning. Its ambiguity meant it could satisfy Millais’s own psyche, Pre-Raphaelite challenges to social reform, and finally ‘modern’ demand for art that penetrated beyond appearances.
Advisor: Wendy Katz