On a recent trip to London I had the good fortune of being able to spend some time in the Tate Gallery. There are many masterpieces in this wonderful and accessible museum. One of the standout paintings for me, is Ophelia, by John Everett Millais.

Here is a giant scan of the image found on the Google Art Project site.

I love this beautiful pencil study of the model, Elizabeth Siddal.

The work was painted, of course, after the character and scene from Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet:

There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up;
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element; but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.

According to the Tate website, Millais painted the background first, carefully observing nature and recording all the detail he possibly could. It sounds like it was an arduous task!

My martyrdom is more trying than any I have hitherto experienced. The flies of Surrey are more muscular, and have a still greater propensity for probing human flesh … I am threatened with a notice to appear before a magistrate for trespassing in a field and destroying the hay … am also in danger of being blown by the wind into the water, and becoming intimate with the feelings of Ophelia when that Lady sank to muddy death, together with the (less likely) total disappearance, through the voracity of the flies … Certainly the painting of a picture under such circumstances would be a greater punishment to a murderer than hanging.
(J.G. Millais I, pp.119–20)

More from the Tate website:

The model, Elizabeth Siddal, a favourite of the Pre-Raphaelites who later married Rossetti, was required to pose over a four month period in a bath full of water kept warm by lamps underneath. The lamps went out on one occasion, causing her to catch a severe cold. Her father threatened the artist with legal action until he agreed to pay the doctor’s bills.

The plants, most of which have symbolic significance, were depicted with painstaking botanical detail. The roses near Ophelia’s cheek and dress, and the field rose on the bank, may allude to her brother Laertes calling her ‘rose of May’. The willow, nettle and daisy are associated with forsaken love, pain, and innocence. Pansies refer to love in vain. Violets, which Ophelia wears in a chain around her neck, stand for faithfulness, chastity or death of the young, any of which meanings could apply here. The poppy signifies death. Forget-me-nots float in the water. Millais wrote to Thomas Combe in March 1852: ‘Today 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’ (J.G. Millais I, p.162).

The Tate is fortunately, a museum that allows photography. So I had to try and get some good detail captures while there! These images, like the one at the first of the post, are large. Download them to get the full view and zoom in.

I think it is very interesting how Millais handled the way the arm extends down into the water. There is very little blending of brushwork throughout the painting, but many small strokes laid down side by side.


You can see some fairly pronounced impasto in places

Thanks for taking a look! I hope you enjoyed the post today.