Bubbles are playful and mesmerizing, but in 17th Century Dutch art they conveyed a serious meaning; the fragility of life. Peter Sion used them in his still life below. The hourglass, pocket-watch, wilting flowers, and extinguishing candle all allude to what the skull blatantly implies; death.
|Vanitas Still Life, Peter Sion|
But looking at Millais darling painting, originally titled, A Child's World can the subject really be the same? Although its likely the majority of Victorians only saw the charm and innocence on the surface (as I originally did) there are clues in the painting that imply it is. On each side of the boy are pots. One has a growing plant, fresh and green. The other is broken, empty with crisp leaves and some twigs on the ground near it.
|Bubbles, by John Everett Millais|
The little curly haired sitter was Millais grandson, who later grew up to be Admiral Sir William Milbourne James. He is gazing at the bubble which teeters between the two sides. When scarlet fever was a greatly feared illness and took the lives of many children, it's possible the painting implies how even at such a tender age life is just as delicate.
Pears' Soap later purchased the original painting and copyright. There's some conflicting information whether Millais was consulted or not but a little bar of soap was added in reproductions used for advertisement. For which he was harshly critisized by Marie Corelli:
I am one of those who think the fame of Millais as an artist was marred when he degraded himself to the level of painting the little green boy blowing bubbles of Pears' soap. That was an advertisement. And that very incident in his career, trifling though it seems, will prevent his ever standing on the same dignified height of distinction with such masters in art as Romney, Sir Peter Lely, Gainsborough, and Reynolds.
The company were within their legal rights and while it caused some controversy, Millais accepted it; he really couldn't do otherwise. The painting became so well-known that the little sitter was nicknamed 'Bubbles' within the Navy.
Knowing it's background I do still like the painting. But where before I saw his gaze at the bubble as fascination I now percieve a bit of anxiety. I think it's interesting that Millais chose to attire him in costume, it looks perhaps 16th century?
What do you think of the painting? Has knowing it's history and symbolism altered your view of it too?
"John Everett Millais's "Bubbles" and the Commercialization of Art." The Victorian Web: An Overview. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Dec. 2011. <http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/corelli/kuehn6.html>.
"Liverpool museums - 'Bubbles' , by Sir John Everett Millais | Artwork of the Month ." Liverpool museums - National Museums Liverpool. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Dec. 2011. <http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/picture-of-month/displaypicture.asp?venue=7&id=299>.