Ophelia has received both positive and negative criticism since Millais began painting it in 1851. Read a variety of opinions on Ophelia from 1851/2 to the present day. Positive reviews written at the time are shown below. Other reviews area available from the menu to the left.
Fred Stephens, 1852
“Come, now! Move on, please!” This was heard repeatedly during the season of 1852 in the Royal Academy’s West Room, the summer home of Ophelia and A Huguenot. Before them, Fred Stephens reported, “Crowds stood all day. People lingered for hours, went away, and returned again and again.”
Millais, A Biography, G. H. Fleming, 1998, London, p.86.
(Fred Stephens was part of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood).
Morning Chronicle 1852
In response to the Royal Academy exhibition in 1852, The Morning Chronicle’s critique was typical: “Mr Millais’s talent is budding into undoubted genius. We have no hesitation in saying that he had produced the two most imaginative and powerful pictures in the exhibition. Ophelia is startling in its originality. The beholder recoils in amazement at the extraordinary treatment, but a second glance captivates and a few moments’ contemplation fascinates him.”
Millais, A Biography, G. H. Fleming, 1998, London, p.87.
The West Room is the stronghold of the best among our younger men. Here are Millais’s wondrous “Ophelia” and “Eve of St. Bartholomew,” Hunt’s equally extraordinary “Hireling Shepherd”.
Fine Arts: The Royal Academy Exhibition, Spectator, 1 May 1852, p.422.
I have this year experienced a new sensation at the Exhibition of the Royal Academy. And I hasten to record my sense of the obligation to Mr. Millais. I offer my hand to that Pre-Raphaelite brother. I bow down to him, and kiss the edge of his palette. I have rapped him over the knuckles, in former years, with my pen. He is at liberty to return the compliment, this year, with his maul-stick.
Before two pictures of Mr. Millais I have spent the happiest hour that I have ever spent in the Royal Academy Exhibition. In those two pictures (Ophelia and A Huguenot) I find more loving observation of Nature, more masterly in the reproduction of her forms and colours, more insight into the sentiment of our greatest poet, a deeper feeling of human emotion, a happier choice of a point of interest, and a more truthful rendering of its appropriate expression, than in all the rest of those eight hundred of canvas put together.
He has painted Ophelia, singing, as she floats to her death, with wide open unconscious eyes, gazing up to heaven. The woven flowers have escaped from her relaxing fingers, and are borne idly with the long mosses of the stream, past the lush July vegetation of the river bank. The red-breast pipes on the willow spray, the wild roses give their sweetness to the summer air, the long purples peer from the crowding leaves, the forget-me-nots lift their blue eyes from the margin as she floats by, her brown hair drinking in the weight of water and slowly dragging down the innocent face with its insane eyes, till the water shall choke those sweet lips, now parted for her own death-dirge.
Talk as you like, M’Gilp, eminent painter, to your friend Mr. Squench, eminent critic, about the needless elaboration of those water mosses, and the over making-out of the rose-leaves, and the abominable finish of those river-side weeds matted with gossamer, which the field botanist may identify leaf by leaf. I tell you, I am aware of none of these. I see only that face of poor drowning Ophelia. My eye goes to that, and rests on that, and sees nothing else, till-buffoon as I am, mocker, joker, scurril-knave, street jester by trade and nature-the tears blind me, and I am fain to turn from the face of the mad girl to the natural loveliness that makes her dying beautiful.
Our Critic ‘Among the Pictures’, Punch, 2 May 1852, pp.216-217.
John Ruskin, 1854
In his first public reference to Ophelia, Ruskin called it the, ‘loveliest English Landscape, haunted by sorrow.’
The Works of John Ruskin, vol. XII, p.161, E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds. quoted in The Pre-Raphaelite Landscape, Allen Staley, 2nd ed. New Haven, London and Yale University Press 2001, p.33. (John Ruskin was an English critic and art theorist, famous for his defence of the artist Turner in particular in Modern Painters and as a champion for the Pre-Raphaelites from 1851).
John Guille Millais, 1899
Perhaps one of the greatest compliments ever paid to “Ophelia” as regards its truthfulness to Nature, is the fact that a certain Professor of Botany, being unable to take his class into the country and lecture from the objects before him, took them to the Guildhall, where his work was being exhibited, and discoursed to them upon the flowers and plants before them, which were, he said, as instructive as Nature herself.
The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais, by one of his son’s John Guille Millais, vol. 1, 1899, p.145.
Mr Spielmann 1899
…one of the greatest of Millais’ conceptions, as well as one of the most marvellously and completely accurate and elaborate studies of Nature ever made by the hand of man.. The robin whistles on the branch, while the distraught Ophelia sings her own death-dirge, just as she sinks beneath the water with eyes wide open, unconscious of the danger and all else. It is one of the proofs of the greatness of this picture that, despite all elaboration, less worthy though still superb of execution, the brilliancy of colour, diligence of microscopic research, and masterly handling, it is Ophelia’s face that holds the spectator, rivets his attention, and stirs his emotion.
Mr Spielmann quoted in The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais by his son John Guille Millais, vol. 1, 1899, p.145. (Mr Marion Harry Spielmann, Art Critic).