Detail of flowers from Ophelia
Detail of flowers from Ophelia

Millais always painted direct from nature itself with great attention to detail. The flowers are real, individual flowers, unlike those found in a flower book that show a type of flower in order to make an identification. He has shown the dead and broken leaves as well as the flowers in full bloom.

One of Millais’s sons, John Guille Millais wrote that his father’s flowers were so realistic that a professor teaching botany, who was unable to take a class of students into the country, took them to see the flowers in the painting Ophelia, as they were as instructive as nature itself.

In a Handbook to the Tate Gallery by Edward T Cook written in 1898, it is suggested that Millais was seen ‘applying a magnifying glass to the branch of a tree he was painting, in order to study closely the veins of the leaves.’ Perhaps he did this whilst painting Ophelia.

The figure of Ophelia is also very closely observed, as Millais had a real model who posed for him in a bath of water. The image of Ophelia is very like the model Elizabeth Siddall, which gives the painting a special poignance. We see a portrait of a real model and a real character.