Great Art: The Somnambulist by John Everett Millais (Interpretation and Analysis)
I’ve never seen anyone sleep walk; however, I imagine it’s quite the sight to behold. The idea of a person who is deeply asleep walking around as if they were awake is rather eerie and disconcerting. It’s no wonder that sleepwalking has been regarded as a mysterious and even supernatural act throughout history.
John Everett Millais explores the psychological mystery of sleepwalking in The Somnambulist. The piece depicts a woman in a long, white nightgown walking through the night. Her expression is strangely blank, suggesting that she is in some sort of trance. She carries an extinguished candle in one hand, emphasizing the darkness and peril of the scene. To the left, it’s possible to see the edge of a cliff and dark water; the sleepwalker is only inches away from falling to her death, yet she is completely unaware of her danger.
Millais had a flair for the dramatic. His paintings are full of characters facing grim and dangerous situations. However, The Somnambulist is a uniquely eerie piece. Instead of an external threat, the danger in The Somnambulist comes from the victim’s own mind. This intense and self-contained narrative is told solely through the woman’s expression and body language. It is a masterful piece of work that captures the uncanny nature of sleepwalking.
The Somnambulist was painted during a period of renewed interest in the phenomenon of sleepwalking. In the nineteenth century, scientists and doctors began to seek a concrete explanation for sleepwalking for the first time. Sigmund Freud in particular had many theories about the subconscious thoughts and desires that caused sleepwalking. However, most believed that sleepwalking happened when the affected person tried to act out their dream as it was happening.
No doubt this idea appealed to nineteenth century artists who were interested in the Romantic ideals of individual expression, imagination, and primacy of emotion. That being said, it seems likely that Millais’ painting was primarily inspired by a popular Italian opera called La Sonnambula. This piece tells the story of a young woman who encounters various mishaps due to her sleepwalking.
Some scholars have also read The Somnambulist as a reimagining of James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s painting The White Girl. Millais was a great admirer of Whistler’s work, and he was especially impressed by The White Girl, a piece that depicts a young woman dressed in white in a white room staring vacantly out at the viewer. While this painting received mixed reviews from critics and other artists, Millais was obviously taken with it. Compositionally, the two pieces are very similar, and there is strong resemblance between the women in the two paintings. However, Millais’ painting has an intensity that Whistler’s lacks. The Somnambulist is an eerie painting with an edge of danger and drama.
It is this edge that makes the piece so captivating. When Millais The Somnambulist in 1871, he was reaching his artistic zenith. His work was increasingly popular with the public and collectors, he had achieved social and financial success through his art, and he had managed to define his own style beyond the Pre-Raphaelite principles that characterized his early work. The Somnambulist, therefore, is the product of a confident and mature artist with the latitude to explore and experiment through his art.