Effie Gray, Pre-Raphaelite muse
As a dedicated admirer of the Pre-Raphaelites, it is my aim to make muses of several of the artists models, who were known by the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood as “stunners”. My first is Effie Gray.
Euphemia Chalmers “Effie” Millais, née Gray was born in Perth, Scotland, in 1828. Effie became John Millais’ muse, after he “rescued” her from an unhappy and unconsummated marriage to the 19th century art critic, John Ruskin.
Effie continued as Millais’ life long muse after there marriage and featured in several of his well known and famous paintings.
Millais was a child prodigy, at the age of eleven he became the youngest student to enter the Royal Academy Schools. He formed “The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood” in 1848 with fellow painters William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, James Collinson, Frederick George Stephens and Thomas Woolner.
Ruskin championed the Pre-Raphaelites for following his truth to nature ideals, however after Millais marriage to Effie he became his most fervent critic.
You can read more about the scandalous story of Effie Gray and John Ruskin at the bottom of this page.
Effie muse details.
The Effie Gray and John Ruskin story
Euphemia, “Effie”, Chalmers Gray was born in Perth, Scotland in 1828, in the house that John Ruskin’s grandfather had lived and had committed suicide.
Her family and the Ruskins were well-acquainted and they encouraged a match between them when Effie was only twelve years old. He was nine years her senior, an only child who was solely taught by his mother and very close to his parents, who were over protective and possessive.
As Effie grew into a vivacious, outgoing, very attractive young woman, the 19th century art critic John Ruskin began to court her and they were married in 1848 when she was twenty.
The marriage of Effie Gray and John Ruskin disintegrated immediately, literally, on their wedding night. To Effie’s great humiliation, Ruskin rejected her sexually and the marriage was never consummated – not that night or any night, but they remained married, for five years.
John Ruskin is considered a great “thinker” and “critic”, a brilliant, intelligent man, but he clearly had very strange and naive ideas of women. In his work he had spent so much time gazing upon artwork that idealised the female form;-smooth, hairless, flawless sculptures and glorified figure paintings,- that he actually believed that real women were supposed to look that way. So when he first saw Effie’s naked body, he recoiled in horror.
Effie wrote to her father about their failed marital relationship:
“He alleged various reasons, hatred to children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and, finally this last year he told me his true reason… that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April 1848.”
From a letter Ruskin wrote to John Simon, his doctor, in 1886.
“I like my girls from 10 to 16 — allowing of 17 or 18 as long as they’re not in love with anybody but me.”
An enlightening but shocking admission from Ruskin, by todays standards.
Five years of marital misery passed, with Effie trying desperately to make the best of it, all the while feeling shunned and rejected by her husband. Effie did not repel all men. Far from it, she was very popular, keeping herself busy with travel and social functions; but it wasn’t until John Everett Millais came along that she finally caught a glimpse of what happiness could be.
John Everett Millais was one of the foremost painters of the Pre-Raphaelite school. He was also a good friend of Ruskin. In 1853, he asked Effie to pose for him for the now famous painting, “The Order of Release”, which depicts a woman freeing her husband, a Scottish rebel, from jail while holding their child. Isolated, besmirched and belittled in her marriage, Effie jumped at the opportunity.
After developing a deep friendship with Millais, Effie confronted John Ruskin about their miserable marriage and said she was deeply in love with Millais and couldn’t put up with a marriage without intimacy or children.
A divorce in Victorian England was complicated and costly, but a strong support system of family and friends, helped Effie decide to pursue an annulment. It wouldn’t have been be easy, depositions had to be given, papers had to be filed, and accusations would fly. On top of all that, Effie was required to endure the indignity of a physical exam to prove she was still a virgin.
Effie filed for annulment on the grounds of Ruskin’s “incurable impotency”, and after much ugliness, gossip and a public scandal, the marriage of Effie Gary and John Ruskin was finally annulled in 1854.
In 1855 Effie married John Millais and over the next 14 years, she bore him eight children, living happily in a loving family.
The Victorian Age was oppressive toward women and Effie was barred from most circles due to her annulment, there was a virtual “scarlet letter” of shame hanging over her. However in spite of being branded an outcast, Effie’s new life with Millais was a rewarding and successful one, and the social ostracism was a small price to pay for having John Ruskin out of her life.
Meanwhile Ruskin tried to pursue a relationship with another very young woman, Rose La Touche. He met La Touche when she was nine years old, as her private art tutor and became infatuated by her. He was fifty years old.
When he later sought to become engaged to the teenage girl, Rose’s parents were concerned for obvious reasons. They wrote to Effie Gray to ask about the marriage and she honestly replied by describing Ruskin as an oppressive and un-loving husband. The engagement was broken off.
Throughout their marriage, Effie continued to model for John Millais, serving as his artistic muse. Millais grew rich and well-respected, one of the most famous painters in England. He was prolific, one year he painted almost two hundred paintings. However he abandoned the Pre-Raphaelite style of obsession to detail and began to paint in a looser style, for which Ruskin blamed Effie and was highly critical.