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
LaertesShe died singing a crazed little ditty! :( How tragic is that?? Breaks. My. Heart."Drowned! O, where?"
"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."
Laertes"Alas, then she is drowned?"
Queen Gertrude"Drowned, drowned."
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So glorious was she, that when she died, Rossetti decided to bury a few of his unpublished poems along with her, and no copies.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)