Critics have disagreed about Autumn Leaves ever since it was first exhibited in 1856. Some have thought of it first and foremost as a masterly piece of harmonious landscape painting. Others have praised Millais’ radical move away from painting a ‘subject’ in favour of an emphasis on formal and decorative elements.
Others again have noted the different social classes of the girls, and have suggested a political undertone. Millais himself wrote that he wanted the painting:
‘to awaken by its solemnity the deepest religious reflection. I chose the subject of burning leaves as most calculated to produce this feeling.’
Millais intended the picture as an allegory of mortality. Its sombre mood and ambiguous symbolism certainly encourage the viewer to contemplate the cycles of youth, harvest and decay.