Illustrated companion

The source for this painting is Shakespeare's account of the death of Ophelia in Hamlet, Act IV Scene vii. Ophelia has been driven mad by the murder of her father by her lover Hamlet. Out picking flowers she slips and falls into a stream. In her grief and madness she allows herself to drown.

Millais spent nearly four months from July to October 1851 painting the background, on the bank of the River Hogsmill at Ewell in Surrey. He endured considerable difficulties and discomfort and the whole story of the painting of 'Ophelia' is evidence of the extraordinary dedication of the young Pre-Raphaelites to their goal of 'truth to nature'. In December Millais returned with the canvas to London, where he inserted the figure. The model was Elizabeth Siddal. who posed in a bath full of water kept warm by lamps underneath. The lamps once went out, she caught a severe cold and her father threatened Millais with legal action if he did not pay the doctor's bill.

The brilliant colour and luminosity of 'Ophelia' is the result of the Pre-Raphaelute technique of painting in pure colours onto a pure white ground. The ground was sometimes laid fresh for each day's work - the 'wet white' technique - which gave added brilliance and was used by Millais in 'Ophelia' particularly for the flowers. The picture contains dozens of different plants and flowers painted with the most painstaking botanical fidelity and in some cases charged with symbolic significance. For example, the willow, the nettle growing within its branches and the daisies near Ophelia's right hand, are associated with forsaken love, pain and innocence respectively. The poppy is a symbol of death.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.83