Ophelia was part of the original Henry Tate Gift in 1894 and remains one of the most popular Pre-Raphaelite works in the Tate’s collection. Shakespeare was a frequent source of inspiration for Victorian painters. Millais’s image of the tragic death of Ophelia, as she falls into the stream and drowns, is one of the best-known illustrations from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.
John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were the founding members of a group of artists called the Pre-Raphaelites formed in 1848. They rejected the art of the Renaissance in favour of art before Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo (15th -16th centuries). The Pre-Raphaelites focused on serious and significant subjects and were best known for painting subjects from modern life and literature often using historical costumes. They painted directly from nature itself, as truthfully as possible and with incredible attention to detail. They were inspired by the advice of John Ruskin, the English critic and art theorist in Modern Painters (1843-60). He encouraged artists to ‘go to Nature in all singleness of heart.rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing.’
The Pre-Raphaelites developed techniques to exploit the luminosity of pure colour and define forms in their quest for achieving ‘truth to nature’. They strongly believed that respectable divine art could only be achieved if the artist focused on the truth and what was real in the natural world.