The meaning of this painting was felt generally to be obscure and the story as related by Millais’s son J.G. Millais, locates the scene in Ancient Rome: ‘It is that of a young Roman who has been reading through the night the letters of his lost love; and at dawn, behold, the curtains of his bed are parted, and there before him stands, in spirit or in truth, the lady herself, decked as on her bridal night, and gazing upon him with sad but loving eyes’ (Millais, II, p.304). The critic of the Art Journal described “Speak! Speak!” as ‘a powerful canvas, broadly handled and eloquently telling its tale’ (Art Journal, 1895, pp.164-6). In fact, the identity of the female figure at the foot of the bed caused some consternation, an effect which Millais had fully intended, as Millais’s biographer M.H. Spielmann recorded: ‘When I remarked that I could not tell whether the luminous apparition was a spirit or a woman he was pleased: “That’s just what I want”, he said; “I don’t know either, nor”, he added, pointing to the picture, “does he” ‘ (quoted in Flint, p.261).
Painting and background information from the Tate gallery, UK.