Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Ophelia by John Everett Millais

This is Ophelia. Painted by John Everett Millais between 1851-52. Millais was part of the seven member Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of painters, poets and art critics whose main philosophy was filled with principles of realism and observations of Nature. They based their work heavily on the ideas of John Ruskin, the English art critic and theorist, who encouraged painters to 'go to Nature in all singleness of heart, rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing.' But that's a whole other post...

The woman lying in the water, in the painting, is Ophelia. She is the lovelorn character in Shakespeare's Hamlet, who goes mad and drowns in the river. In the play, it is never quite determined whether it was a suicide or accident. And even on stage, it is never played out, and only referred to in conversation between her brother, Laertes, and Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude.

Hamlet, Act 1V, Scene V11


"Drowned! O, where?"

Queen Gertrude

"There is a willow grows askant the brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead-men's-fingers call them.
There on the pendent boughs her crownet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook.
Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up;
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element.
But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death."


"Alas, then she is drowned?"

Queen Gertrude

"Drowned, drowned."

She died singing a crazed little ditty! :( How tragic is that?? Breaks. My. Heart.

Now let's look into the painting of the painting. Millais was said to have painted the river and the surrounding first, on location, at Hogsmill River in Surrey, England. His attention to detail is legendary. Apparently, he was known to apply a magnifying glass to a tree to capture the texture of the bark.

Then he moved his work into the studio, where he painted Elizabeth Siddal in. She was a glorious muse of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, and wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a founding member of the Brotherhood.

So glorious was she, that when she died, Rossetti decided to bury a few of his unpublished poems along with her, and no copies. After seven years, he decided to retrieve the poems and had to exhume her grave. And it was said that her body was remarkably preserved, her beauty in tact, and that her flaming red hair had grown and filled the coffin! But, again, that's a whole other post...

It is said the model, our Lizzie, had to lie in a bathtub of water fully dressed, almost every other day, throughout the winter of 1851, for this painting. Millais put lamps and candles under the tub in order to keep the water lukewarm. Eventually, the poor woman came down with pneumonia. Now that's what I call suffering in the name of art. :S Millais remained the gentleman, and took care of her medical bills.

This painting is one of my all-time faves because it moves me on every level. The subject, the story about and behind it, the organic art philosophy, the raw technique, the goddess-like composition, the dank yet rich colours, and the photographic accuracy, in terms of visual and emotion. It makes me cry, and takes my breath away, at the same time. Absolutely out-of-this-world.

(pics from Tate)


  1. Hi Pearl! Thanks for the lovely intro on Ophelia. The painting looks so real and touching, especially her expression! Makes me wonder what was the last thing Ophelia saw or thought before she drowned?? Kinda reminds of Cate Blanchett of Queen E fame.

  2. Hey Dawn! Super stuff huh? I think i first came across it studying the poems of Christina Rossetti, her sister-in-law. I have yet to see this painting "in person". I bet when I do, I will collapse in an emotional heap, and the security guard will have to call for an ambulance.

    So the drama!

  3. I wrote my art history essay final on this painting in my first year, it's one of my favourites too. :)

  4. Oh Natelle, we are united as suckers for Ophelia!! How I wish I did art history in Uni... :)

  5. I first came across this picture in an art book called Raphaelite Art or something and this picture by Millais captivated me. I was rapturous when I saw it at Tate Gallery London. I can relate to your comments about collapsing in an emotional fit :)

  6. the painting of ophelia's drowning scene is very beautiful and according to shakespeare's description. john gave touch to a magnificient character of shakespeare. the narural scene is too exact to describe. john evertt showed his skill in making this painting. parul agrawal pursuing ph.d.(english) from banasthali university

  7. For the first time I saw this painting in drawing book in an University Library. I am impressed because I have read Hamlet in M.A. standard. Millias made it with keen observation. Ophelia is looking in the painting as shakespeare desrived it in words and millias filled the colours in shakespeare's image.