"The Boyhood of Raleigh" (1870) is a famous oil painting by the English artist, John Everett Millais. Look for it if you ever wind up at the Tate Gallery.
Today, the painting is most recognized for its romanticized portrayal of imperialism, but it remains a masterpiece because of its flawless formal execution and because it manages to be more than a product or a container of Victorian ideology: it also dramatizes the art of storytelling and the "making" of history in a very sophisticated and self-conscious way.
The composition of this painting is just terrific. Take a look!
In the foreground we have the dynamic figure of an anonymous sailor who points to the horizon in the painting's background while speaking to two inert figures in the middleground, the boy Raleigh and his anonymous brother or friend. The three figures are arranged in a slightly artificial way but their postures do not strain credibility. Likewise, the objects and scenery around them—the soaring birds, the ocean, the wall, the anchor, the toy ship—are all loaded with allegorical content yet they are of a piece with the setting and do not overwhelm the focus of the painting. These traces of artifice in a realist painting are appropriate to what is essentially an ars poetica work and are perhaps even necessary for forming a metalanguage to describe the transmission of myth and history.
Millais uses a number of ingenious visual devices to depict the act of storytelling and the call to adventure. Though the sailor-storyteller is silent to the outside viewer of the painting, the title and context of Millais's work relates the theme his story: adventure in the New World. The waves of the ocean are a visual pun for the the sailor's speech, rippling from his mouth and washing over the boys' ears. The ocean itself is a metonym for his tale which partially unites the captivated audience and the storyteller on the same plane.
But the storyteller is also 'above' the story as one who has lived through the adventure that he recounts. His eyes glance at the horizon line as he recollects his lived experiences and sees once again the details of a distant land and time. But his eyes also glance at the surface of the ocean, at the surface of the story; he is conscious of his act of narration and his role in shaping its content. And, of course, his glance also falls upon his audience; he is attentive to their attention, he anticipates their expectations, he shapes his story according to what they know and what they do not.
Maybe you're with me on that; maybe you think that all of this is too much to infer from a still and silent image. It's true that the scene has many ambiguities; even if we assume that his story takes place over the distant horizon that he points to, we're still left wondering about its details. Could he be telling of his voyage over the ocean? Of his arrival somewhere? Of an adventure that followed? We can be sure that this sailor has at least been to the Americas because he has a dead toucan sitting beside him. Bizarre.
Another thing I think we can know for certain is that this story must be interesting as hell. At least to the boy (Raleigh?) wearing the frilly green Victorian garb. Check out that kid's face. He has that blank, thousand-yard stare of a twelve-year-old playing Call of Duty 4. He's totally immersed and he's projecting himself into the story. That's our basis for thinking that this old salt is at the height of his craft as a storyteller.
What's his point?
Look at that gesture he is making with his left hand. It is like he is literally holding their attention. But that's also the rhetorical gesture that says, 'Hang on, don't get carried away—stay with me a minute while I say something more.' Yet, at the same time, his right hand is pointing away from the here-and-now, toward something distant, toward something that can only be seen by the imagination.
Actually, he's pointing to at least three things: he's pointing to the historical or mythical past of his own adventure, he's pointing to a distant present reality that really, really exists right now, and he is also pointing to a destiny—a possible future in which the boys emulate his example. So, could he be telling them about El Dorado? Possibly! If you zoom in closely you can see a gold ring on the sailor's left hand. The boy on the left (Raleigh?) is giving it a nice, fanatical gollum-stare.
On the other hand,
The sailor's two hand gestures align for the boy wearing the green (Raleigh?) so that he can see both at once or look through the left-handed gesture to the right. The storyteller has the ability to make near what is distant and present what is past—but only in a metaphorical sense, of course. The two boys are still very much separated from this world of adventure by the WALL OF REALITY. Their circumstances keep them from an adventure like the one that the sailor describes. You can see it: they're too young, too soft, too pale, too frilly. The sailor's appearance, in contrast to their own, would be enough to suggest that they have a long way to go before their first adventure—even if he wasn't pointing all the way to the other side of the world.
But that's not to say that the storyteller is intimidating them. If anything, he is encouraging and empowering them. Look at the way he raises his right arm like a bridge over the wall, over the water, over the horizon. His finger even appears to extend into a vanishing point. At the same time, his left hand appears to fall on top of the wall behind the boys as if he were attempting to lower it for them. He is making it possible for them to cross this barrier between the mundane world where they are children with great limitations and the realm of mythic possibilities that awaits them on the other side.
Toward the right direction
But if we arrive at this interpretation of the painting, I think we also arrive at a jarring visual paradox: Either Millais allows his storyteller incredible reach or what looks like an enormous depth of space within the painting is actually compressed into a two-dimensional surface. The first alternative has us looking into the painting as if it were a view from a window. Our vision seems virtually unobstructed because we can see far beyond the figures to the horizon line, the utmost limit of human sight in the world.
The second alternative, I think, leaves us hyperaware of the painting as a painting. The background and foreground collapse onto the same plane and our vision seems to scan across an opaque surface rather than penetrating into a three dimensional world. In this perception of the artwork, the flattened figure of the sailor seems to point, not to any location within the painting, but to the framed edge of the painting and to the world that lies beyond.
So, in addition to the stone WALL OF REALITY inside of the painting, there is yet another barrier that blocks them from adventure and destiny: the frame of fictional representation. It is not enough that Raleigh creates an idealized image of himself as a hero and a conqueror; he must eventually step into the world with this fiction and work to realize it. Perhaps the storyteller directs Raleigh from art to life by suggesting that his tale is insubstantial compared to the thing that has yet to be achieved in the world. Or perhaps the storyteller directs Raleigh from art to art by pointing to a potentially greater painting (called "The Manhood of Raleigh," perhaps?) that lies beyond the current frame to the next picture in sequence hanging on the gallery wall.
So, why are there two children in this painting? There are probably a few reasons:
- Millais had two sons, Everett and George, who were the models for this painting.
- The rule of odds states that a composition is more interesting and appealing when it contains an odd number of elements rather than an even number.
- Millais had a rhetorical purpose for creating ambiguity about which boy is actually Raleigh.
It seems like it should be the boy wearing the green. He must be Raleigh! He is way more absorbed in the story, he is much more colorful and defined—the other boy seems like his shadow in comparison—, and his body is better oriented to the sailor's gestures. But this isn't conclusive evidence; there is no definitive way to tell which is which.
Instead, I think we have to imagine a situation or a back story in which both of these boys had an almost equal chance of having a heroic name—an equal chance of "being Raleigh"—until this critical moment where their different reactions to the sailor's story caused their fates to diverge. One child is skeptical or reluctant or merely amused by the story; the other fully responds to the call to adventure, to the mandate of imperialism, to the Victorian ideal of heroism.
I think that Millais meant for this painting to place the viewer in the same position of the two boys who are listening to the storyteller. If that's the case, how shall we respond to this fiction? Do we entertain the idea that we could be heroes and conquerors called to make history? Will we project idealized versions of ourselves into reality? At what cost? At whose expense?
Are we, on the other hand, content to remain shadowy, anonymous figures? Shall we turn our backs on 'greatness' even if it means we will be utterly forgotten?
A postcolonial critic might argue that this is entirely the wrong way of looking at our positions in time. First, we ought to reject the idea that history is a universal narrative—a chronicle of eternity! a cosmic memorial!—with the power to valorize or defame or obliterate any human life. So the question of whether or not one will "make" history by doing great deeds is absurd. History is "made" only in the sense of being fabricated at a local level by a person who constructs a narrative from such volatile sources as memories, documents, and artifacts. The painter and his storyteller are such makers of history and Millais does his utmost to overtly romanticize and fictionalize his portrayal of Raleigh's childhood (for comparison's sake, check out the palette of his "Chill October"—it makes this painting look almost unreal).
So this is clearly a self-conscious treatment of narrative/history. Still, what should we make of the didactic quality of this painting? Is Millais pointing out a certain path for us to follow? Is he showing his hand so that we can be more aware of the compelling power of fiction?