The Black Brunswicker by John Everett Millais
The painting was inspired in part by the exploits of the Black Brunswickers, a volunteer corps of the Napoleonic Wars, during the Waterloo campaign. And in part by the contrasts of black broadcloth and pearl-white satin in a moment of tender conflict. The painting depicts a Brunswicker about to depart for battle. His sweetheart, wearing a ballgown, restrains him, trying to push the door closed, while he pulls it open. This suggests that the scene is inspired by the Duchess of Richmond’s ball on 15 June 1815, from which the officers departed to join troops at the Battle of Quatre Bras. In a letter to Millais’ wife, Effie Gray, Millais described his inspiration for the work, referring to a conversation with William Howard Russell, the war correspondent of The Times:
My subject appears to me, too, most fortunate, and Russell thinks it first-rate. It is connected with the Brunswick Cavalry at Waterloo…They were nearly annihilated but performed prodigies of valour… I have it all in my mind’s eye and feel confident that it will be a prodigious success. The costume and incident are so powerful that I am astonished it has never been touched upon before. Russell was quite struck with it, and he is the best man for knowing the public taste. Nothing could be kinder than his interest, and he is to set about getting all the information that is required.
The same letter states that he intends it to be “a perfect pendant to The Huguenot”, Millais’s first major success, which portrays a similar scene featuring two lovers gazing at each other longingly. Originally Millais intended the two paintings to be even more similar than they are by repeating the motif of the armband used in the earlier painting. He wanted the soldier to be wearing a black crepe mourning armband, with “the sweetheart of the young soldier sewing it around his arm”. The armband idea was quickly dropped as it does not appear in any extant preparatory drawings. Millais reduced the presence of Napoleon to an engraving after Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps, which is framed on the damask-hung wall, and which “perplexed the critics with the possible intricacies of cross purposes and rival jealousies” according to the reviewer from Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. This refers to the fact that some critics took the print to imply that the female character was an admirer of Napoleon, and so she was trying to prevent her lover from joining the army for both personal and political reasons. As the critic of The Times surmised, “her reluctance is due in part to a romantic admiration for this great conquerer.” Other critics suggest the print was intended to allude to both the Waterloo campaign and to more recent events, particularly Napoleon III’s repetition of his predecessor’s crossing of the Alps by his attack on Austrian controlled Italy in 1859. Cr: Wikipedia