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How one of the richest artists of the 19th century spoiled the reputation of his own grandson: “Soap bubbles” by Millet

Soap Bubbles is a painting by John Everett Millet, written in 1886, which became famous due to the use of soap in advertising. Unremarkable at first glance, the picture hides deep philosophical meanings, and the artist was later accused of having sold his talent.

About the artist
Sir John Everett Millet was an English artist, illustrator, and co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The Brotherhood was founded in his family house in London, on Gower Street 83 (now number 7). The strong personality of the artist’s mother had the most significant impact on his future. Having a great interest in art and music, the woman encouraged her son’s creative inclinations, facilitating the family’s relocation to London. Subsequently, she made 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 in the academy. There he met William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, with whom he founded the Brotherhood.

However, by the mid-1850s, Millet moved away from the Pre-Raphaelite style in order to develop a new form of realism in art. His later works were extremely successful, making Millet one of the richest artists of his time. By the time he wrote his most famous bubble work, Millet was in his fifties, and he abandoned the Pre-Raphaelite style, making his palette darker and starting to use a softer brush.

The plot of the picture
The work “Soap bubbles” was written in the years 1885-1856. The painting was one of many children’s portraits of Millet. It depicts a boy who blows bubbles with a tube and soap foam. The boy was the artist’s grandson, Willy James. At the time of writing, he was about 4 years old. Subsequently, the boy became an admiral. In order to portray the bubbles as realistically as possible, Millet used a specially made glass ball. In the process of painting, Millet hung it over the child’s head and moved it as a guide 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.”

The deepest meanings of the picture
At first glance, this is an ordinary portrait of a child with an unremarkable plot, but if you delve into the story, you can find out that the plot was based on the vanitas genre, popular in the 17th century, in which the soap bubble symbolized the fleetingness of life. A frequent plot in this genre was the image of young guys who blew soap bubbles, usually against the background of skulls. The picture shows a little red-haired boy looking at the 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 picture: on the right side of the canvas – a young plant growing in a pot – this is 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 contrastingly on the canvas, his face, hands and a basin for bubbles are brightly lit.

First publication and further fate of the picture

The painting was first exhibited in 1886 under the name “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 its reproduction in his newspaper. When the first issue of the picture was released, Thomas J. Barratt, Managing Director of A & F Pears, saw the newspaper.

Pears Transparent Soap is one of the oldest soap companies and the first registered brand in the world according to Unilever. It is also the first company to start producing clear soap. Thomas James Barratt bought the original painting from Ingram for £ 2,200, which gave him exclusive copyright to the painting. A reproduction of the soap bubbles by John Everett Millet has become the most famous soap advertisement. The painting was bought by Thomas Barratt in August 1890.

Copyright was needed to bring about a change in the picture. In particular, a bar of soap was added for use in an advertising company. At that time, Millet was one of the most popular artists in the UK. Therefore, the dubious prospect of a marketing artist bothered Millet, and his grandson became the object of commercial exploitation (which the artist also did not like). Many said at the time that the artist sold his talent. Critics claimed that it had a humiliating effect on the picture and the future reputation of the master. Millet even had to defend themselves from their attacks when he was unfairly criticized by representatives of the artistic establishment, who believed that he was humiliating his art. The advertisement was so popular that the little hero of the picture – William James, who became the admiral of the Royal Navy, was known by the nickname “Bubbles” Admiral Bubble until the end of his life.

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