Ophelia, John Everett Millais
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.