How to Read Paintings: The Blind Girl by John Everett Millais
Two girls are huddled beneath a shawl as a storm passes overhead. The luminosity of the colours tells us that the sun has returned, brightening the hillside, bathing everything in a fresh light.
Perched on the bank of a stream, the two girls wait for the final few drops of rain to slip by. Their attention is occupied with the wetness of the grass, the warmth of the sun and a new clarity in the air.
Look a little closer and you’ll notice that one of the girls is blind. Around her neck she wears a small handwritten note that reads “Pity the blind”.
Judging from the ragged state of their clothes, she and her sister are homeless and must beg for sustenance by playing a concertina — the musical instrument on her lap.
The older sister has lost her eyesight, yet the artist is prompting us to consider her heightened sensitivity. She feels sunlight on her face whilst she fingers the blades of grass beside her. And the concertina not only tells us that she performs for money but also that all her other senses are flourishing.
The whole scene is radiant and intense: the copper coloured hair of the girl, her pink cheeks, the golden-blond of her inquisitive sister, the double rainbow, the small tortoiseshell butterfly on her shoulder.
But here’s the question: how are we supposed to feel about a blind girl who is surrounded by so much colour and light but who cannot see it herself?
A Perfect Thing
Contemporaries of John Everett Millais praised the work. Friend and fellow member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of painters, Dante Gabriel Rosetti said the painting was “one of the most touching and perfect things I know”.
It is a painting that does its work gently. It doesn’t insist. With its fusion of figure…