When John Everett Millais began the painting that would launch his career as one of 19th-century England’s most prominent artists, he needed props. He envisioned a young Jesus surrounded by his parents, Joseph and Mary, in their working-class carpenter’s shop. It would be a new kind of scene: serene, overindulged with religious symbolism, yet done in a style no one was expecting.

But Millais had a problem. The 20-year-old was not a working-class man. His parents were old money and he lived in Bedford Square, one of the toniest neighborhoods of central London. He could not simply wander over to his father’s garage and sketch what he saw.

So he set out into the nearby cobblestone streets for inspiration. A woodworker on Oxford Street let Millais recreate his shop on canvas in painstaking detail—workbench, wood shavings, and all. A butcher gave the painter two sheep’s heads that he replicated in fields visible through the holy family’s doorway.

The resulting painting, Christ in the House of His Parents, was completed in 1851. It placed a redheaded Christ at the center of a poor family with shabby clothes and shoeless, dirty feet. And it shocked England. For some, the image was so realistically ordinary it bordered on blasphemy. Charles Dickens hated it. Queen Victoria heard so much rumbling that she had it brought to Buckingham Palace so she could see it herself.

People objected to almost everything Millais painted in that carpenter’s shop. The one thing no one questioned, however, was his assumption that Joseph ran a carpenter’s shop in the first place.

Few would today, either. Even people who know little else of Jesus grasp the idea that he, like his father, was a carpenter. From ...

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