Lines and Colors art blog

Eye Candy for Today: John Everett Millais’ Ophelia

Ophelia, John Everett Millais
Ophelia, John Everett Millais

Link is to zoomable version on Google Art Project; high resolution downloadable version (22 MB) on Wikimedia Commons; original is in the Tate, London.

Prompted by yesterday’s post on the mezzotint print by John Stephenson after this painting by Millais, and the fact that I last mentioned the painting back in 2006, I thought it might be enlightening to compare the two more closely. I’ve taken basically the same detail crops I took of the mezzotint print in my images above.

I have not yet had the pleasure of seeing the original, though I have seen some of Millais’s originals in the excellent collection of Pre-Raphaelite painting in the Delaware Art Museum, so I have some idea of the level of finish and attention to the detailed representation of nature for which Millais, and this painting in particular, are renowned.

I have to say that in addition to finding it very interesting and informative to compare Stephenson’s approach — which by its nature must focus on value and texture, rather than color — to Millais’ full painting, I was frankly surprised to find there are passages in which I actually find the print has surpassed the painting — particularly in making areas of foliage and the water plants into visually appealing textural elements.

Millais’ painting, however, is striking and memorable on many levels, not the least of which is the tragic figure of Ophelia, borne away as much by her grief-induced madness as by the waters of the stream.

The painting (as well as many others by other artists) was inspired by a passage Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act IV, Scene VII). The scene is not acted out in the play, but conveyed in a poetic description by Queen Gertrude:

There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up;

After painting the background, with its astonishing level of fidelity to nature, for an extraordinary number of hours on the Hogsmill River in southern England, Millais painted the figure of Ophelia in his studio, modeled by 19 year old Elizabeth Siddal — who was a frequent model for several of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, and would eventually wed Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood co-founder Dante Gabriel Rosetti. Millais had her pose in a gown laying in a bathtub full of water in his studio for hours on end.

Reportedly, the oil lamps Millais was using to keep the tub warm in the chilly studio went out at times, and when Millais, engrossed in painting, didn’t notice, and Siddal didn’t complain, it resulted in Siddal coming down with an illness (either a severe cold, or perhaps pneumonia) for which her family held Millais responsible and insisted he pay for her medical expenses.

For more, there is an entry on Wikipedia devoted to the painting, and I go into the background of the painting a bit in my 2006 post on Sir John Everett Millais.


3 responses to “Eye Candy for Today: John Everett Millais’ Ophelia

  1. Brian Harrison Avatar
    Brian Harrison

    Thanks Charley, for re-posting the original painting for comparison – much appreciated.
    I have loved the Pre-Raphaelite`s work from an early age, when seeing a number of original works at the Lady Leverhulme Art Gallery at Port Sunlight in the U.K.
    I feel very fortunate in seeing this astonishing work in London, when I was younger.

  2. William J Lexie Avatar
    William J Lexie

    I’ve liked this piece for a long time probably due to the young lady reminding me of someone I know . But this piece seems to me an allegory work , the use of a young female for the aesthetics of the nature of the ‘place ‘ , ‘she’ lays at rest in her lovely ‘dress’ yet tense, worried uncertain of the unfolding future ‘she’ IS the body , flesh and blood ,[ land and water ]natures beauty , an allegory rather than being an illustration of Ophelia . Millais was actually by profession a portraitist the bread and butter that paid the bills for a large family to live well . In other words it would be a poor illustration be it for commercial or commission , I imagine more thought going into it considering the time , effort , energy in there . I mean why would so much work go into it without knowing how it would sell . And After all , allegory was PRB ‘s main interest [ as well as being open to all possibilities of techniques ] more so than that true to nature realistic materialism look at that level the concept statement works . p.s I like to smile about the story that he grew so bored with portraiture that hunting was more appealing to him .

    1. I don’t know that it’s the case with this work, but many artists did extravagant works to act as attention getters, examples of their skill, and essentially ads for their abilities as a portraitist, even if the subject was not a portrait per se. I believe many self-portraits functioned this way (particularly some of Rembrandt’s), as well as portraits artists like Sargent, Zorn, Beaux and many others painted of family members. Sometimes the purpose of an extravagant work without a specific buyer in mind is just to get attention and make a name for the artist.