Millais Ophelia
Behind The Painting

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
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet 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,
Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.

- Queen Gertrude.
Hamlet. Act IV, Scene VII.

It is Queen Gertrude's description of Ophelia's death in Hamlet Act IV, which is the inspiration for Millais painting. Unlike most other contemporary paintings based on Shakespearian themes, Millais Ophelia is neither tableau vivant, nor is it particularly dramatic. Everything is relegated to the scintillating natural details of the scene. They form a real indent of the painting and stand out like silk embroidery from the bed of weeds and the grassy water plants in which the subject floats. Ophelia, driven insane by the murder of her father and by her lover, Hamlet, is portrayed singing in her madness as she drowns.

Millais began working on the painting in the summer of 1851, painting the river and background by the river Ewell near Kingston-Upon-Thames. The outdoor location caused him some trouble. 'I sit tailor-fashion', he wrote 'under an umbrella throwing a shadow scarcely larger than a half-penny for eleven hours, with a child's mug within reach to satisfy my thirst from the running stream beside me, I am also in danger of being blown by the wind into the water, and becoming intimate with the feelings of Ophelia when that lady sank to muddy death.' His model of Ophelia, Elizabeth Siddall also suffered fleshy mortifications as she sat for the picture. The painting was completed in London during the following winter and Miss Siddall had to lie in a bath of water, heated by oil lamps from below. The cold she caught as a result brought a complaint against Millais from Miss Siddalls father, with the threat for an action of £50 damages. The action was settled, the resulting painting considered to posess the best likeness ever painted of Miss Siddall.

John Everett Millais' Ophelia was shown at the same Royal Academy Exhibition in 1852 as the painting by Hughes; imagine the reaction of the viewer who had just seen Hughes's picture and then looked next at Millais' vibrant, detailed rendering of Ophelia's death, what one reviewer calls the "least practicable subject in the entire play" (The Art Journal XIV:174). The painting was harshly criticized by most reviewers (Altick 300-1), but The Art Journal, recognizing the technical skill of Millais, was willing to write off its deficiencies to youthful enthusiasm and inexperience: "Yet what misconception so ever may characterise these works, they plainly declare that when this painter shall have got rid of the wild oats of his art, with some other vegetable anomalies, his future promises works of an excellent, which no human hand my have yet excelled" (The Art Journal XIV:174). The opinion of critics is that the details--"vegetable anomalies"--overwhelm Ophelia, thus reducing her anguish to a mere part of the scene. Millais did, in fact, carefully select and paint his flowers and flora so that most of them are identifiable.

Dozens of flowers and plants are depicted--violets, pansies, daisies, fritillaries, poppies, loosestrife, forget-me-nots, nettles, willows and many more. Nor, apparently did he overlook the symbolic meaning of some of the flowers: the pansies signify love in vain or thought (the name is derived from the French penser), poppies signify sleep and death, the rose signifies youth, fritillaries sorrow, violets death in youth and daisies innocence. Some of these, and some of the other flowers Millais includes, are referred to Act IV scene V of Shakespeare's tragedy, in which Ophelia recites the names of flowers she has been gathering.

Ophelia is for us one of Millais' best-known and admired pictures, but the critics in 1852 found little to like about it. Altick cites an example the critic of the Athenaeum who judges the face of Ophelia totally inappropriate: "The open mouth is somewhat gaping and babyish;--the expression is in no way suggestive of her past tale. There is no pathos, no melancholy, no brightening up, and no last lucid interval. If she dies swan-like with a song, there is no sound or melody, no poetry in this strain". Ophelia's expression seems right to us now; she has retreated so far into her madness that she lies motionless and emotionless, oblivious of her doom. Millais took pains to capture just the expression he wanted.