To celebrate Christmas Eve, I thought I’d have a look at a festive painting: Millais’s ‘Christmas Eve’ (1887), which sold this month at Christie’s for £241,250, exceeding its estimate of £150,000 – £200,000. One of his later, and less well-known paintings, it is a view in Perthshire, where he frequently stayed in the winter. It’s an unusual painting for those familiar with Millais’s Pre-Raphaelite oeuvre, since most of his earlier paintings depict figures, though often against a detailed outdoor backdrop (such as the famous ‘Ophelia’). The first of his paintings to show a full snow landscape, ‘Christmas Eve’ is interesting because, while the snow may seem an idealised image of Christmas, it is not, in many ways, a festive scene. It is a rather bleak landscape, depicting a moment of stillness, in which the viewer is invited to step into a winter landscape populated only by birds and trees. Then, as now, Christmas Eve is so often not a time for quiet reflection and communing with nature; rather, we tend to be involved with preparations, visitors and home. Murthly Castle is apparent on the left of the painting, but it seems a chilly and uninviting place, without the lights and welcoming aspect we associate with Christmas. I rather like how Millais subverts our expectations here, providing an alternative which is no less valid: Christmas is also a time for peace and quiet, for reflection, for country walks and enjoying the winter landscapes, and this scene is appealing because the viewer is drawn in towards the horizon, as if we might walk straight past the castle towards the trees and bridge.
The title of the painting is, I think, the day on which the painting was completed, but nonetheless ‘Christmas Eve’ gives me the feeling of a personal Christmas moment for Millais, and for those who see it, of a moment of stillness and a different kind of festive joy. While it is dramatic, it is not sentimental or chocolate-box-y; it feels genuine and inviting, without obvious symbolism or ‘meaning’.