Popular Millais painting returns to Bolton Museum
Touring as part of a Millais retrospective exhibition organised by the Tate, The Somnambulist had travelled to the Tate Britain, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and two venues in Japan (the Kitakyushu Museum of Art and the Bunkamura Museum of Art). It is now on permanent display in the art gallery, and was initially purchased by Bolton Museum in 1968.
Millais was arguably one of the greatest painters and founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood - a group of English painters, poets and critics, founded in 1848. The brotherhood included Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Michall Rossetti, James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens, Thomas Woolner and William Holman Hunt.
Their intention was to bring art back a greater ‘truth to nature’, and they admired the simplicities of art in the early 15th century. Millais’s famous work, Ophellia, depicting Hamlet’s drowned lover, was modelled with painstaking attention on a real body in water (his model posed in a bath full of water), and surrounded by a beautiful display of real sunflowers.
He became President of the Royal Academy in 1896 and was well known for his paintings of stoic women and sensuous beauties.
The subject of the painting may have been influenced by the novel The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, which was published in 1860 and became an instant bestseller.
The ghostly figure of a woman in white featured strongly in the popular culture of the day. Another inspiration could have been Bellini’s Italian opera La Sonnambula, first produced in Milan and London in 1831, and again in subsequent years.
The subject of sleepwalking fascinated the Victorians. They became fascinated by contact with "the other world" through means of clairvoyance, séances, ghosts, poltergeists and sleepwalking.
The painting shows that the woman is walking very close to the edge of the cliff. The viewer is uncertain as to whether she will fall and possibly die, or whether she will keep to the path.