Ghostly Apparitions and Matters of the Flesh: Millais’ ‘Speak! Speak!’ in Focus

JE Millais, ‘Speak! Speak!’, 1895
Oil on Canvas, 1676 x 2108 mm
Tate, London

Millais’ works are well known for his precision and painstaking attention to detail. Painted over four decades after the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Speak! Speak! (1895) demonstrates a noticeable change in the artist’s handling of his materials, and a radical departure from his earlier roots. While many parts of the painting still demonstrate his precision, such as the bound letters on the bedside table, the roman lamp, and the woman’s jewels, the majority of the work comprises loose brushstrokes. Furthermore, the greater part of the painting is engulfed in darkness, illuminated from a single light source.

Unlike the unfolding stories present in his earlier works, the subject matter of Speak! Speak! is deliberately ambiguous. The scene is thought to depict a young Roman who has, after spending the night reading letters from his lost love, awoken to find her standing before him as she appeared on their wedding night.[1] The man starts up in his bed, reaching out a hand towards her, as if – as the title suggests – begging her to speak. To the left, a dimly lit doorway is left open, and a turquoise patch of paint in the upper left corner suggests an open window, revealing a night sky outside. This allows in enough light to illuminate an ascending spiral staircase, from which the ghostly figure is presumed to have come. To the right there is a bedside table, upon which there is a bundle of letters bound with a red ribbon, and a single candle placed next to a mirror, lighting up the room. The candle gives off smoke to the right, which forms a skull-like shape.

A question is left unanswered: is this woman a ghost? The title, ‘Speak! Speak!’ is taken from Shakespeare’s Hamlet when Horatio addresses the ghost of the dead king, which could allude to the dialogue taking place in this painting.[2] In addition to this there are several clues in the way the woman is painted that could affect our interpretation: one remarkable aspect of the woman is the way in which she is lit. Despite the dimness of the room and the candle as a single light source, she is completely illuminated in the darkness. What is more, Millais has painted her with particular colours that cannot be found anywhere else in the painting. On close inspection, her skin and dress comprise not only white, but blues, greens and purples. His application of the paint in small daubs almost resembles the Impressionist approach to create the illusion of flickering light, and adds greatly to the illusion of the woman’s glowing form. These colours ultimately endow her with a ‘cold’ appearance, as opposed to the man whose flesh is painted with reds and oranges and is noticeably ‘hot’ in comparison. Is this the distinction between hot-blooded, living flesh and a cold, ghostly apparition? Or is it simply due to the man being closer in proximity to the burning candle?

This painting addresses the border between what is real and what is not. It is difficult to ascertain whether or not she is made up of living flesh, because despite the way she pulls back the curtains, there is no physical contact made between the two figures that could answer this question. The only hint of contact between them comes from the shadow cast by the man’s arm, which brushes the woman’s hand. However the shadow itself has no substance, and could therefore serve as an allusion to the woman herself. Finally it is impossible to ignore the skull formed by the billows of smoke to the right of the painting, which serves a somewhat ephemeral memento mori.

There is of course another potential reading of the female figure: perhaps she is neither living nor ghostly, but a figment of the man’s imagination. Kate Flint has suggested the possibility of the woman being a psychological hallucination, ‘caused by some internal disturbance in the man’s mind’, and later implies that paintings such as this can address issues surrounding the relationship between hallucination and vision.[3] Some contemporary reviews even addressed this, suggesting she is a symptom of another ailment, with one critic writing that the man is in a high fever, while another sees her as a ‘result of indigestion’.[4]

Whatever the physical state of the woman, her presence is haunting. Painted towards the end of the artist’s life, we glimpse the ageing and increasing frailness of his body through the strokes of his brush. Speak! Speak! bears the lamentations of a life near its end, and is wholly underlain by images of ageing, death and decay.

[1] J. G. Millais, The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais, vol. 2. (London: 1899), 304

[2] W. Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, Scene I, Line 51 in P. Edwards (ed.) Hamlet: Prince of Denmark (Cambridge: 2003), p.89

[3] K. Flint, The Victorians and Visual Imagination (Cambridge: 2000), 261-2

[4] R. J. Slade, ‘The Royal Academy’ in Art Journal (London: June 1895), 164; ‘The Spring Art Exhibitions’ in London Society, vol. 67, no. 402, (London: June 1895), 616

* * *

This excerpt comes from a larger body of work produced in collaboration with the University of Bristol and Tate Britain between November 2011 and January 2012.

  1. I think I’ve only seen this painting once, but I didn’t realise that it was a Millais. That said, her face somehow makes it almost automatically one of his. Great discussion of the contrast in colour between her and him, and the room at large. I’ve been looking at similar medieval portraits of women in bedchambers. In some of them, the women are the exact same colour as the white sheets on which they lie. It’s only through the outlines of their bodies and their faces that you can tell there is anyone there at all. Fancy a collaboration on Ghostly Women of the Bedchamber Through Time? 🙂

    • Sian White said:

      I would be VERY interested in that collaboration!

      Thank you for your comments. I’ve neglected WP for a while and have seen your most recent post on my feed – I will give it my full attention shortly!

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