Ophelia – Sir John Everett Millais

We all know that Ophelia has been creating a bit of a noise at the moment with the hurricane battering the English, Irish and Welsh coasts and washing up all manner of creatures that are not native to our cold and drab winters.  Today a leatherback turtle was washed up onto Welsh shores.  How depressing when it is probably much more accustomed to the tropical waters of South America, at least he will be able to get a bite of some kendal mint cake…

Obviously my post is not about the hurricane, but about Millais representation of the character Ophelia from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”.

Millais was bit of a child genius, and at the age of 11 he was the youngest student to enter the Royal Academy School.  It was here, with William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti the Pre-Raphaelite movement was born.  Later they were joined by other artists and shared the principles of the movement with artists on the edges of their group.

The basic principles are fairly easy, and their first doctrine to the movement was something like this:-

  1. to have genuine ideas to express;
  2. to study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them;
  3. to sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote; and
  4. most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.

The name “Pre-Raphaelite” comes from the groups shunning of the art stylings of mannerism and its classical poses which were being taught during the 1800s.  The doctrine was designed to be non-dogmatic, putting the responsibility on the artist to produce well defined and meaningful art and the pieces naturally started to follow historic events or romantic poetry giving the artwork background and emotion.

A few years after the Pre Raphaelite movement was created, Millais moved his style away from this movement, and developed his own powerful and emotional technique, bringing realism as a form into his work.

Millais technique for this particular painting was to complete the picture in two locations.  Unusually for the time, Millais spent 5 months painting the landscape outside, to get a real feel for the scenery which would have surrounded Ophelia in her watery grave.  This is direct scenery from the Hogsmill river in Ewell, Surrey.  The lush and dense plant life that surrounds the river, is a direct representation of what Millais saw.  As this part was painted over 5 months, you can see flowers which don’t naturally bloom together in flower as his time there spanned over several seasons. Some have been added in for symbolism to the cause but most are what can still be seen flowering throughout the year by river banks in England still.

The second part of the painting, Ophelia herself, was actually a 19 year old women named Elizabeth Siddal, Millais had her lay in a bath for extended periods of time, dressing in a heavy ornate dress, so that he could capture the pose, and distinct style of a drowning women.  Siddal became quite ill from this, but thankfully recovered quickly and went on to marry Rossetti.

So what is the story of Ophelia?  Even if you have never seen “Hamlet” you have probably seen this mournfully beautiful painting.  Ophelia, is the epitome of a good girl who loses her way.  She is dutiful to her father and brother, and would, if she ever got to that stage, be a dutiful wife and mother.  She is the quintessential virgin, but with no mother to guide her she is confused between what a good lover looks like and someone who would ultimately lead her to her doom.  Ultimately Ophelia loses her way, when her father is killed by Hamlet, her true love, and this makes her snap into some deluded depressed state, dying slowing and passively as the waters of the river that she lays in weighs down her heavy dress pulling her under.  Poor Ophelia doesn’t even get a stage death, her suicide is just talked about, so what she gets to display is submission, madness and lute playing.

Millais captures this romanticised death with artistic precision, assisted with the song which she is said to have sung as she died:-

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 lauds,
As one incapable of her own distress
Or like a creature native and endued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.

It’s all very elegant and passive, almost as though the river talked her into dying as she picked flowers, rather than it being her choice to commit the act.

The song details the mermaid line effect of her dress and the slow sinking, but only one like is dedicated to the demise of her muddy death – sinking into the river bed.

Millais has capture this feeling perfectly.  The painting is so rich with the floral attributes and ornate dress, the lost look on the girl’s face and the open arms, showing the passive nature of the death.

Regardless of the difficult nature of this painting, it’s attention to detail and depiction of insufferable loss and madness is a true gem in the art works crown.


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