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Painting in detail: ‘Mariana’

Mariana, from Tennyson’s eponymous poem, is shown alone in her chamber after her fiancé Angelo sent her into exile following the loss of her dowry at sea. Tennyson took his narrative from Shakespeare’s play ‘Measure for Measure’.

The minute execution and careful finish of Millais’s oil painting may have been influenced by van Eyck, while the bed in the distance and the solitary lit flame suspended on the right allude to details in the ‘Arnolfini Portrait’, such as the brass chandelier with its single lit candle. The way the blue dress accentuates the curvature of Mariana’s figure recalls the green gown in van Eyck’s portrait.

Sir John Everett Millais, 'Mariana' (detail), 1851 © Tate, London (T07553)

In a drawing for the painting, Millais includes the outline of a round mirror behind Mariana’s head, which must have been suggested by van Eyck’s mirror, and would have shown her reflected, loosened hair. He rejected this in favour of a deeper space, filled with symbolically suggestive objects, as in the ‘Arnolfini Portrait’. The presence of the stained-glass window with its figures of the angel announcing to the Virgin Mary that she will bear the infant Christ emphasises Mariana’s situation by contrast, and may also be inspired by the small scenes of Christ’s Passion around the mirror in van Eyck’s painting.