Sir John Everett Millais painted ‘Ophelia’ when he was only 22. It is one of Tate Britain’s most loved paintings (boasting the impressive feat of being its most popular postcard) and possibly the most famous Shakespeare painting of all time. Painted between 1851-2, it’s an early Pre-Raphaelite work and shows the aftermath of Ophelia’s suicide in ‘Hamlet’. Her pallid body is contrasted with the lush greenery around her. Shakespeare was very popular in the Victorian era. Ophelia, who drowned herself after her lover Hamlet murdered her father, is the subject of many paintings from that time. The pre-Raphaelites often chose serious themes, painting subjects from literature and modern life in natural settings paying close attention to detail and using rich colour.
Interestingly, ‘Ophelia’ was painted in two different locations. Millais painted the landscape on the banks of the Hogsmill River in Surrey. He spent long days working outside for several months in 1851. He painted Ophelia in his studio in London and employed 19-year-old Elizabeth Siddal to lie in a full bathtub wearing a silver gown. Siddal was a model for many of the pre-Raphaelite’s, including her future husband Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Later, she would become an established artist and poet. Once, when modelling for ‘Ophelia’, the lamps keeping the water in the bath warm broke, and poor Siddal lay in the cold for hours whilst an unaware Millais worked on. This resulted in a cold for Siddal and a doctor’s bill for Millais!
The scene depicted in the painting is never actually seen in the play. It is referred to in a speech by Queen Gertrude, who is talking to Ophelia’s brother, Laertes. Ophelia, driven to madness, goes to pick flowers and falls into the river. Gertrude describes how she lies in the water singing, unaware of the danger she’s in. Slowly, her clothes pull her down and she drowns, her lips still parted in song. Ophelia’s pose, with her arms open and her gaze upwards, is suggestive of a saintly figure.
In an earlier draft, Millais included a water vole paddling alongside Ophelia. However, when showing the unfinished painting to some friends, no-one could identify what it was. They thought it might be a rabbit or a dog. In the finished painting, Ophelia’s furry friend is nowhere to be seen. However, there is a light sketch of him hidden behind the frame in a corner of the canvas!
Apart from Ophelia, the focus of the painting is on the natural setting around her. Millais painted directly from nature and this is seen in the botanical accuracy of the flowers. To make the colours as vivid as possible, Millais painted his canvas a bright white and applied the paint in single layers. For the riverbed, he mixed yellow and cobalt tones together to achieve vibrant greens, the scene coming to life under his paintbrush.
The flowers floating on the river were specifically chosen by Shakespeare for what they symbolised. The pansies Ophelia clutches are symbolic of loving in vain, whilst the daisies and nettles floating in the water represent pain and innocence. The roses next to her cheek and on the bank refer to Laertes’ nickname for his sister, ‘rose of May’. The garland of violets around Ophelia’s neck are for faithfulness and chastity, and symbolise death in the young. The only flower that is not mentioned in the play is the poppy floating next to Ophelia, and this represents death and sleep.
When it was first exhibited, ‘Ophelia’ was not universally well-received. However, over time it has come to be admired for its intricate brushwork and the tragic scene that unfolds among the delicate flora of the riverbank. ‘Ophelia’ is one of the most beautiful and popular pre-Raphaelite paintings. The viewer’s eye is drawn to her dreamy gaze, and it’s not until you step closer that you realise the heart-breaking truth; she’s not waving, but drowning.
– by Miranda Parkinson