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How one of the richest artists of the XIX century almost ruined the reputation of his own grandson: “Soap bubbles” millet

“Soap bubbles” is a painting by John Everett millet, written in 1886, which became famous for its use in advertising soap. Unremarkable at first glance, the picture hides deep philosophical meanings, and the artist was later accused of selling his talent.

About the artist
Sir John Everett Millais was an English artist, Illustrator, and one of the founders of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The fraternity was founded at his family home in London, at 83 Gower street (now number 7). The strong personality of the artist’s mother had the most significant influence on his future. Having a great interest in art and music, the woman encouraged her son’s creative tendencies, facilitating the family’s move to London.Subsequently, she established contacts to help her son enter the Royal Academy of arts. Millet was a child Prodigy who, at the age of 11, became the youngest student at the Academy. There he met William Holman hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, with whom he founded a Fraternity.

However, by the mid-1850s, millet had moved away from the pre-Raphaelite style to develop a new form of realism in art. His later work was extremely successful, making millet one of the wealthiest artists of his time. At the time of writing his most famous work with bubbles, millet was in his fifties, and he abandoned the pre-Raphaelite style, making his palette darker and beginning to use a softer brush.
Plot of the picture
The work “Soap bubbles” was written in 1885-1856. The painting was one of millet’s many childhood portraits. It shows a boy blowing soap bubbles with a pipe and soap suds. The boy was the artist’s grandson, Willie James. At the time of writing, he was about 4 years old. The boy later became an Admiral. In order to depict the bubbles as realistically as possible, millet used a specially made glass ball. During the painting process, millet hung it over the child’s head and moved it as a reference point to determine the best position of the bubble on the canvas. Initially, millet called his painting “Children’s world”, but later it was replaced by”Soap bubbles”.

Deep meanings of the picture
At first glance, this is an ordinary children’s portrait with an unremarkable plot, but if you go deeper into the story, you can find out that the plot was based on the popular genre of vanitas in the XVII century, in which the soap bubble symbolized the transience of life. A frequent subject in this genre was the image of young men blowing soap bubbles, usually against the background of skulls. The picture shows a small red-haired boy looking at a bubble inflated by him. In this context, it is an attribute of the beauty and fragility of life. There are other significant details in the painting: on the right side of the canvas – a young plant growing in a pot-a symbol of life, and on the other side – a fallen broken pot, symbolizing the fragility and futility of life (death). The little hero stands out in contrast on the canvas, his face, hands and bowl for bubbles are brightly lit.

First publication and further fate of the picture
The painting was first exhibited in 1886 under the title “Children’s world” at the Grosvenor gallery in London. The work was purchased by sir William Ingram of the Illustrated London News, who wished to reproduce it in his newspaper. When the first picture issue was released, Thomas J. saw the paper. Barratt, managing Director Of a & F Pears.

Pears Transparent Soap is one of the oldest soap companies and the world’s first registered brand according to Unilever. It is also the first company to start producing transparent soap. Thomas James Barratt bought the original painting from Ingram for £ 2,200, which gave Him the exclusive copyright to the painting. A reproduction of the painting Soap bubbles by John Everett millet became the most famous soap advertisement. The painting was purchased by Thomas Barratt in August 1890.
Copyright was needed in order to make changes to the picture. In particular, a bar of soap was added for use in an advertising campaign. At the time, millet was one of the most popular artists in the UK. Therefore, the dubious prospect of a marketing artist worried millet, and his grandson became the object of commercial exploitation (which was also not to the artist’s liking). Many people said at the time that the artist sold his talent. Critics claimed that this had a humiliating effect on the painting and the future reputation of the master. Milla even had to defend himself against their attacks, when he was subjected to unfair criticism from representatives of the art establishment, who believed that he was humiliating his art. The ad was so popular that the little hero of the picture – William James, who became an Admiral of the Royal Navy, until the end of his life was known by the nickname “Bubbles” Admiral Bubble.
Thus, the famous “Soap bubbles” played a double role for John Millais. Of course, the picture “handed” the artist the laurels of success and fame, gave him wealth and provided for many years. On the other hand, by transferring the rights to the picture to an advertising Agency, the artist damaged his reputation and that of his grandson.

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