The scene depicted is from Shakespeare's Hamlet, Act IV, Scene vii, in which Ophelia, driven out of her mind when her father is murdered by her lover Hamlet, drowns herself in a stream:
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.
Shakespeare was a favourite source for Victorian painters, and the tragic-romantic figure of Ophelia from Hamlet was an especially popular subject, featuring regularly in Royal Academy exhibitions. Arthur Hughes exhibited his version of her death scene in the same year as this picture was shown (Manchester City Art Gallery).
Millais began the background in July 1851, at Ewell, Surrey. In accordance with the aims of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, he painted with close observation of nature. Millais quickly found, however, that such intense study was not without problems, and was moved to remark in a letter to Mrs Thomas Combe,
My martyrdom is more trying than any I have hitherto experienced. The flies of Surrey are more muscular, and have a still greater propensity for probing human flesh ... I am threatened with a notice to appear before a magistrate for trespassing in a field and destroying the hay ... 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, together with the (less likely) total disappearance, through the voracity of the flies ... Certainly the painting of a picture under such circumstances would be a greater punishment to a murderer than hanging.
(J.G. Millais I, pp.119-20)
The figure of Ophelia was added afterwards. The model, Elizabeth Siddal, a favourite of the Pre-Raphaelites who later married Rossetti, was required to pose over a four month period in a bath full of water kept warm by lamps underneath. The lamps went out on one occasion, causing her to catch a severe cold. Her father threatened the artist with legal action until he agreed to pay the doctor's bills.
The plants, most of which have symbolic significance, were depicted with painstaking botanical detail. The roses near Ophelia's cheek and dress, and the field rose on the bank, may allude to her brother Laertes calling her 'rose of May'. The willow, nettle and daisy are associated with forsaken love, pain, and innocence. Pansies refer to love in vain. Violets, which Ophelia wears in a chain around her neck, stand for faithfulness, chastity or death of the young, any of which meanings could apply here. The poppy signifies death. Forget-me-nots float in the water. Millais wrote to Thomas Combe in March 1852: 'Today I have purchased a really splendid lady's ancient dress - all flowered over in silver embroidery - and I am going to paint it for "Ophelia". You may imagine it is something rather good when I tell you it cost me, old and dirty as it is, four pounds' (J.G. Millais I, p.162).
Ophelia was part of the original Henry Tate gift to the Tate Gallery.
John Guille Millais, The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais, 1899, I, pp.116-20, 123, 129-131, 144-7, 151, 162-3
Leslie Parris (ed.), The Pre-Raphaelites, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1984, reprinted 1994, pp.96-8, reproduced in colour
Film and audio
Karen Elson compares her own experience of modelling with that of Pre-Raphaelite muse Elizabeth Siddal, Millais's long-suffering model for ...
This is Britain: The Home of British Art. Presenter Lauren Laverne picks two works from the BP British Art Displays ...
Group of British artists founded in 1975 who aimed to revive the painting of figure subjects in idyllic rural settings
In its specific sense realism refers to a mid nineteenth century artistic movement characterised by subjects painted from everyday life ...
The Pre-Raphaelites were a secret society of young artists (and one writer), founded in London in 1848. They were opposed ...
Ophelia and the Pre-Raphaelites are back at Tate Britain! To celebrate, Andrew Dickson looks at Millais and four other artists ...
In an essay originally published in issue 3 of Tate Etc. we take a look at John Everett Millais's ...
Painter and printmaker Stella Bethlehem from Narinsilk discusses how the work of the Pre-Raphaelites influences her own craft.
The acclaimed Amercian artist reveals a long-held fascination with Ophelia by John Everett Millais (1829–1896), one of Tate’s most ...
Tate Etc. invited the fashion designer Erdem on a special tour Tate Britain, where he selected his favourite paintings of ...
Millais’s early career was closely linked to his friendship with the Lemprière family. The teenage artist’s desire for one of ...
- emotions, concepts and ideas(15,667)
- leisure and pastimes(6,746)
- literature and fiction(3,154)
- symbols & personifications(7,117)
- emotional states and conditions(158)
- birth to death(113)
- abstract concepts(124)
- work and occupations(11,718)