Millais did not give himself as long to paint the figure for Ophelia as he did to paint the landscape. It was unusual for the landscape to be painted before the figure. The landscape was often considered the less important part of painting and therefore painted second. This is not what Millais and his Pre-Raphaelite friends believed. They thought that the landscape was of equal importance to the figure.
Millais started work on the figure of Ophelia inside his studio at Gower Street as soon as he returned to London in December 1851. He worked on the figure until the end of March 1852.
He wrote to his friend Mr Combe on January 9th about his progress. ‘I have been working most determinedly since Christmas, but (curiously) with little effect. I have given up all visiting, so I cannot be accused on that score of giving little evidence of progress. Next week I hope to sail into a kind of artistic trade-wind, which will carry me on to the Exhibition.’ (The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais, John Guille Millais, vol. 1, 1899, p.155).
Millais’s model was a young woman aged nineteen years called Elizabeth Siddall. She was discovered by his friend, Walter Deverell, working with a needle in a milliner’s, and would later become the wife of one of Millais’s friends, Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1860. This was the only time Elizabeth posed for Millais. She was described as ‘tall and slender, with red, coppery hair and bright consumptive complexion.’ Millais’s Ophelia was ‘wonderfully like her.’ (Arthur Hughes, ‘The Letters of DG Rossetti to William Allingham’, quoted in The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais, John Guille Millais, vol. 1, 1899, p.144).
To create the effect of Elizabeth pretending to be Ophelia drowning in the river, she posed for Millais in a bath full of water. To keep the water warm some oil lamps were placed underneath. On one occasion, the lamps went out and Millais was so engrossed by his painting that he didn’t even notice!
Elizabeth got very cold and became quite ill. In those days there was no National Health Service or readily available medicine, so Elizabeth was looked after by a private doctor. Elizabeth’s father (an auctioneer in Oxford) was furious that his precious daughter had become ill and ordered Millais to pay the fifty medical bills (£3,173.05 today). The matter was settled and Miss Siddall recovered quickly.
Elizabeth wore a very fine silver embroidered dress bought by Millais from a second-hand shop for four pounds (this would be about £250 today). In March, 1852, Millais wrote to Mrs Combe, ‘To-day 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.’ (The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais, John Guille Millais, vol. 1, 1899, p.162).
By March 6, Millais wrote, ‘I am getting on slowly, but I hope surely, Ophelia’s head is finished.’ The Huguenot, the other painting Millais was working on at the same time and hoping to exhibit at the RA with Ophelia, was ‘very nearly complete’ apart from the figure of the girl for which he was awaiting a model.
By March 31, Millais had only to ‘paint the skirt of Ophelia’s dress, which will not, I think, take me more than Saturday.’ Millais was hopeful that his pictures would be placed in good positions in the exhibition as the principal hanger for the Royal Academy Exhibition, Mr CR Leslie, had called twice to see Millais’s work ‘each time expressing great admiration.’ (The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais, John Guille Millais, vol. 1, 1899, p.162-3).
Both artists wanted to exhibit their paintings at the Royal Academy Exhibition in 1852. The deadline for submitting a painting was 1 April. Ophelia, The Hireling Shepherd and A Huguenot all appeared in the 1852 exhibition. The Light of the World by Hunt was exhibited in 1854.