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Illustrations provided by Sarah Haxby

She's Lost Her Head by Sarah Haxby
Illustrations provided by Sarah Haxby

  It’s only bad guys that would decapitate a helpless damsel – right? No one would ever suspect that John Everret Millais (1829-1896), an artist well known for his association with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and for his hundreds of paintings portraying romantic and allegorical imagery, would do such a thing.  

And yet Millais literally cut out and removed the original head from the damsel in distress in the oil painting The Knight Errant (1870). The damsel in The Knight Errant is the only surviving, completed nude by Millais that we know of; 1 it is not known how many other nudes he may have painted over.

The fact that the image does not contain the damsel's original face is not widely known. There was an issue with the original face, but Millais didn't just paint over it, as was the common practice of the time; instead he carefully cut the original head from the painting, sewed in fresh canvas and then meticulously sewed the first face into a different canvas.

John Everett Millais - 1854

John Everett Millais-18542


One wonders what was so wrong with the first head that it had to be removed; and then one wonders further why Millais took such care of the original damsel's head to Frankenstein it in to a new location when such a master of paint and pigment could have easily just painted in a new face. So, where did the original damsel's face end up? Thanks to a bit of research and technology the case of the decapitated damsel in distress can now mostly be explained. This is the story of two paintings, two women, one artist, and the idea of rescue and villains.


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1 “…the only picture in which the nude figure is seen” (pg 24 The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais. 2 vols. London: 1899) according to John Guille Millais, a phrase I believe is deliberately carefully worded to allow for further discussion on other nudes that Millais may have started, but then altered, or perhaps there are other Millais nudes out there somewhere.

2 Photograph of Sir John Everett Millais Bt PRA, Date, 1854, unknown photographer, public domain.(1854)
Source of image: John Guile Millais. The Life and Letters of John Everett Millais, President of the Royal Academy. 2 vols. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1899., II, 219


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