Millais is best known as one of the artists who founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. As a result of what have been called his "concessions to the sweetness of Victorian taste," he was made as associate of the Royal Academy in 1853. By the time he painted Portia, there was hardly a trace of the Pre-Raphaelite style in his work. Instead, he worked in an academic-realist manner and concentrated on the kinds of saccharine subjects that are now synonymous with Victorian painting.
This picture was long incorrectly identified as a portrait of the actress Ellen Terry (1847–1928) in one of her most famous roles, Portia in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. In fact, it shows actress Kate Dolan dressed in the costume that Miss Terry wore in Act IV of the play. When the picture was exhibited at McLean's Gallery, London, in 1886, Shylock's line describing Portia was quoted in the catalogue: "A Daniel come to judgement! Yea, a Daniel!"
X-rays and pentimenti indicate that Portia is painted over a study of the same figure in Greek costume. An early photograph documenting the original image was published in 1899.
A founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848, created a baronet in 1885, and elected president of the Royal Academy in 1896, Millais was enormously successful, and died wealthy and honored, but his reputation did not long survive him.
In his biography of his father, J. G. Millais reproduced a photograph of the incomplete and long unlocated Study of a Girl in Greek Dress (see Additional Images, fig. 1). It appeared opposite text relating to the year 1885, in which the author described how the artist came to hire a Miss Dolan as the model for "one of Shakespeare’s heroines that he intended to paint." The picture is also recorded in a photograph of 1885 by Rupert Potter of Millais seated in his London studio. Several pages on, J. G. Millais illustrated a striking sketch of a head, evidently the same person but in a different costume (see Additional Images, fig. 2), titling it, with reference to the heroine of The Merchant of Venice, "Head of ‘Portia.’" The confusion arising from the existence of the three disparate photographs was finally put to rest in 1977, when Malcolm Warner proposed that they must all represent earlier stages of the Metropolitan Museum’s picture, indications of which would likely be revealed by an x-radiograph. This proved to be the case (see Additional Images, fig. 3).
It had been suggested in the November 6, 1886, issue of the Athenaeum that Portia had been "mainly studied from" the American actress Mary Anderson, who, however, as Lucy Oakley (1981) pointed out, was touring in the United States from September 1885 until June 1886, during most of the period when the picture was painted. Anderson never played Portia, but she had acted in various roles that called for classical costume of the sort depicted in the earlier stages of the picture. On August 2, 1886, Ronald Sutherland Gower (1902) had called on Millais in his studio and had seen Portia "in Ellen Terry’s red dress in that part, but not a portrait of that actress." That this information is correct is confirmed by any number of images of Terry as Portia, for example, G. W. Baldry’s 1883 portrait (Garrick Club, London). If the picture represented Anderson, Terry, or one of Millais’s daughters, as has been claimed, the artist or J. G. Millais would undoubtedly have said so, which leaves us with the fact that the latter instead mentioned the model Miss Dolan, whose first name is recorded elsewhere as Kate. The young woman reportedly sat for Leighton as well, and later for Burne-Jones.
Millais shows a woman of commanding stature. The velvety, sonorous shades of red and persimmon impart warmth and intimacy, while the verticals provided by the costume contribute to the gravity of her presence. However, as Oakley (1981) observed, the fact that the artist "could transform the Girl in Greek Dress into Portia merely by changing her clothes underlines his fundamental lack of interest in the narrative possibilities of the subjects."
[2012; adapted from Baetjer 2009]
Inscription: Signed and dated (lower right): JEM [monogram] / 1886
?[Thomas McLean, London, from 1886]; Walter Clifford Weblyn (from 1887; bought for 2,000 gns.); James Staats Forbes, London (by 1888–d. 1904; his estate, 1904–5; sold through Grafton Galleries for £1,200 to Agnew); [Agnew, London, 1905–6; sold to MMA]
London. T. M'Lean's Gallery. "Oil Paintings . . . of the British and Foreign Schools," 1886, no. 29 (as "Portia, 'A Daniel come to judgment! Yea, a Daniel!'").
London. Whitechapel [St. Jude's School House]. "Fine Art Loan Exhibition," March 20–April 8, 1888, no. 23 (lent by J. S. Forbes).
London. Grafton Galleries. "A Selection of Paintings and Drawings from the Collection of the late James Staats Forbes," 1905, no. 287.
New York. Wildenstein. "Stars of Yesterday and Today," March 7–April 4, 1944, no. 89 (as Ellen Terry as Portia).
Richmond. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. "The Tastemakers," January 18–February 24, 1957, no catalogue.
Indianapolis. Herron Museum of Art. "The Pre-Raphaelites," February 16–March 22, 1964, no. 53.
New York. Gallery of Modern Art. "The Pre-Raphaelites," April 27–May 31, 1964, no. 53.
Palm Beach. Society of the Four Arts. "English Paintings of the Victorian Era," February 5–27, 1966, no. 21.
Coral Gables, Fla. Joe and Emily Lowe Art Gallery of the University of Miami. "The Revolt of the Pre-Raphaelites," March 5–April 9, 1972, no. 63.
Ellen Terry. Letter to Sir John Millais. March 30, 1886, writes "Of course I will lend you the dress [presumably the dress worn in the picture, see Ref. Oakley 1981, pp. 183–84, fig. 2] (here it is.) or anything in the world that I possess, that could be of the very smallest service to you".
[F. G. Stephens]. "Fine-Art Gossip." Athenæum no. 3065 (July 24, 1886), p. 122, states that the picture of Portia in the costume of "an Italian advocate" is "not quite finished," and that it is "probably destined for next year's Academy".
[F. G. Stephens]. "Minor Exhibitions." Athenæum no. 3080 (November 6, 1886), p. 606, reviewing the McLean's exhibition, states that Millais's "figure [of Portia] is mainly studied from Miss Mary Anderson" and observes that "she does not look in the least like a Daniel come to judgment".
"Art Note." The Star (September 22, 1887) [p. 2], states that Walter Weblyn bought the picture for 2,000 guineas and intends to include a color reproduction of it in the Christmas number of "The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News," of which he is proprietor.
"Gossip from the 'World'." Birmingham Daily Post (October 10, 1888), p. 7, states that "Encouraged by the phenomenal success of 'Portia,' Mr. Walter Weblyn has secured the copyright of 'Punchinella,' one of Sir John Millais's most recent works, for the coming Christmas number of the 'Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News'.
M. H. Spielmann. Millais and His Works. Edinburgh, 1898, p. 176, no. 283.
John Guille Millais. The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais. New York, 1899, vol. 2, pp. 192, 483, discusses the selection of "Miss Dolan, a favourite model of Lord Leighton's" as the model for the painting of a Shakespearean heroine; reproduces (opposite p. 192) a three-quarter-length 1886 oil sketch in which the model's pose is nearly identical to that in this picture but in which she wears a Greek dress, and (following p. 196) an 1886 bust of the same model, called Portia, and wearing the high-collared robe.
Ronald Sutherland Gower. Old Diaries, 1881–1901. New York, 1902, p. 48, writes that he saw in Millais's studio on August 2, 1886, "a 'Portia,' in Ellen Terry's red dress in that part, but not a portrait of that actress".
[Roger Fry]. "The Grafton Gallery." Athenæum no. 4048 (May 27, 1905), p. 664, reviewing the exhibition of the Forbes estate at the Grafton Gallery, observes that Portia shows "lamentable" proof "of the destructive effects of popularity".
Ellen Terry. "My First Appearance in America." McClure's Magazine 31 (June 1908), ill. p. 128, as "Ellen Terry as Portia".
Bryson Burroughs. Catalogue of Paintings. 1st ed. New York, 1914, p. 183, no. M61–1, as Ellen Terry in the part of the heroine of Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice".
Augustin Rischgitz. Letter. April 24, 1916, informs the Museum that his aunt, Ellen Terry, lent Millais her dress but is not represented in the picture.
Mabel Terry Lewis. Letter to the director. January 16, 1927, writes that her aunt, Ellen Terry, lent Millais the dress she wore in the "Merchant of Venice" but that the model was one of his daughters.
Ralph H. Graves. Letter to Winifred Howe. December 6, 1927, informs the Museum that Millais's son, writing for the family, asserts that the sitter is a Miss Donovan.
Art News 43 (March 1–14, 1944), ill. p. 11.
Richard Ormond. Letter to Monroe H. Fabian. January 8, 1971, believes that the sitter was one of Millais's daughters, a model, or the actress Mary Anderson, but in any event not Ellen Terry.
Malcolm Warner. Letter to Lucy Oakley. June 27, 1977, notes that none of Millais's daughters looked remotely like Portia; suggests that x-rays might reveal the studies Millais's son published in 1899.
Lucy Oakley. "The Evolution of Sir John Everett Millais's Portia." Metropolitan Museum Journal 16 (1981), pp. 181–94, fig. 1, traces the history of the picture from its conception in 1885 as a woman in a Greek dress, probably inspired by the American actress Mary Anderson, to a Shakespearean subject in which the model, presumably Miss Dolan, wears one of Ellen Terry's Portia costumes from the "Merchant of Venice".
Carolyn Merlo. "John Everett Millais and the Shakespearean Scene." Gazette des beaux-arts 104 (September 1984), pp. 82–85 nn. 13, 14, fig. 3.
John Pope-Hennessy. "Roger Fry and The Metropolitan Museum of Art." Oxford, China, and Italy: Writings in Honour of Sir Harold Acton on his Eightieth Birthday. Ed. Edward Chaney and Neil Ritchie. London, 1984, p. 235.
Katharine Baetjer. British Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1575–1875. New York, 2009, pp. 280–83, no. 134, ill. (color).