The demented Ophelia, driven to despair after the murder of her father by her lover Hamlet, is shown here floating in the stream which will soon close over her, unable to comprehend her fate and still singing to herself — ‘Her clothes spread wide, And mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up’. She is clutching some of the flowers she picked before her fall into the brook; others, carried by the current have lodged themselves in the still buoyant parts of her sumptuous dress, ‘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’.
Millais spent many months of intensive work on this composition. At the beginning of July 1851 he set up his easel by the side of the river Hogsmill near Ewell in Surrey. There, occasionally plagued by flies, heat and a bull, he worked with astonishing obsessiveness on the background detail of the painting, often spending eleven hours a day in front of his canvas. His obsessive meticulousness was shared by his Pre-Raphaelite colleagues (in particular William Holman Hunt) in their determined espousal of ‘truth to nature’.
The luminosity of early Pre-Raphaelite work was attained by painting directly onto a pure white ground. Sometimes, to gain extra intensity the ‘wet white’ technique was used whereby colour was applied on top of a white ground which had been laid the same day and it was this technique that was used by Millais for most of the flowers in this picture, giving them extra brilliance.
The picture contains a huge variety of flowers and plants all painted with botanical exactitude, although not all of them would have been flowering at the same time as they appear in the picture. Many plants are there for symbolic reasons. The willow gets a big part not only because Shakespeare mentions it (‘There is a willow grows aslant a brook’) but because it is associated with forsaken love. The nettle growing within it, rather obviously, denotes pain, the daisies are associated with innocence, the pansies caught in Ophelia’s dress signify love in vain, the poppy is a symbol of death, and so on.
Eventually, in mid-October Millais had finished his labours by the river bank and after his return to London from Surrey it only remained for him to insert the figure of Ophelia. In early December he started work, using as his model Elizabeth Siddal (who met Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1850 and eventually married him in 1860). Her task was to lie submerged in a bath filled with warm water which was kept at a reasonable temperature by placing lamps beneath the bath. This being Millais, the poor woman was no doubt subjected to this peculiar form of water torture for many hours a day and for many weeks (he did not finish her head until March 1852). A forced break in this bizarre routine was occasioned by the lamps failing one day resulting in Elizabeth catching a severe cold. Millais, threatened with legal action by her father was forced to pay her doctor’s bills. Such were the perils inherent in the role of Pre-Raphaelite muse.
Photo © Tate – CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)
1851 Gustave Corbet: Burial at Ornans, Paris, Musée du Louvre
1852 Arthur Hughes: Ophelia Manchester, City Art Gallery
1854 Théodore Rousseau: The Edge of the Woods, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art