Shakespeare in Art – Millais’ “Ophelia”

Three days into nursery school, John Everett Millais was expelled for biting his teacher’s hands.  Any teacher who suffers a similar assault should consider diverting the child’s spirit with paint.  In 1840, at the age of 11, Millais became the youngest student to enter London’s Royal Academy of Arts – the President and his parents keen “‘to speed him in the career for which nature had evidently intended.'”

There, the biting ceased but the rebellion persisted.  In 1848, Milais and fellow Academy students, Dante Gabriel Rosetti and William Holman Hunt, formed the secret Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (or PRB, as in their signature).  The goal of the Brotherhood was to challenge the teachings and practices of the Academy (i.e. contrived compositions and artificial chiaroscuro); to paint like the Italians before Raphael; to meditate on more “serious” subjects; to be faithful to nature; and like, the French Impressionists, to paint landscapes “en plein air.”  Pre-Raphaelite paintings are known for their moralistic overtones, poetic and romantic subjects, meticulous detail, and jewel-like colours.  The Brotherhood lasted only four years, about half of them out of public favour.  Tastes change – Millais’ Ophelia is now the best-selling postcard at the Tate Britain.

And so it was at the Tate Britain several autumns ago that I saw the most beautiful painting of a possible suicide.  I had been allowed to enter the galleries with a bag of groceries (a litre of water, two boxes of Twinings tea, and a head of broccoli).  I was certain that the officials had failed to notice the bag or imagine the damage broccoli could inflict upon their national treasures, and so, returned to the check-in counter to point out the contents and leave the bag behind.  The man at the desk gave me a “very-well-if-you-wish” shrug.

Once inside, I understood the nonchalance.  The etiquette was astounding.  All the patrons stood an adequate arm’s-length from the art and no one attempted to sneak photos.  In Room 14, a woman (with permission, I assume) had set up an easel and was painting an exact replica of Ophelia.

Millais, however, had painted the background outdoors on the banks of Hogsmill River, Ewell, Surrey.  There, in 1851, with oil paints, porcelain palette, and primed canvas, he painted up to 11 hours a day, 6 days a week, for over 5 months – under conditions that would have driven more than Ophelia mad:

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…also in danger of being blown by the wind into the water…There are two swans who not a little add to my misery by persisting in watching me from the exact spot I wish to paint, occasionally destroying every water-weed within their reach.

Millais cherished those water-weeds and painted the surrounding flowers with a botanist’s accuracy:  weeping willow (forsaken love), crow flowers (childishness), nettles (pain), daisies (innocence), and loosestrife (as the “long purples”) – as described in the play:


There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, and envious silver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook.

Hamlet, IV.vii, 3315-3324

There was, however, a water vole that was sacrificed.  Millais had trouble painting it and his aunt and uncle mistook it for a hare, rabbit, cat, and dog before he eliminated it altogether.  Possible sketches of the ill-fated rodent hide behind both of the frame’s spandrels.

Unlike the landscape, Millais painted the figure of Ophelia indoors.  The 19-year-old model – Elizabeth Siddall – wore a vintage dress embroidered with silver flowers and posed in a bathtub full of water, heated with oil lamps underneath.  It was a true test of patience, as Millais was known to spend an entire day painting an area the size of a shilling.  One “sitting,” the oil lamps failed and Siddall grew cold and ill.  Her father, furious, insisted that Millais pay the fifty medical bills.

Siddall recovered but “One woe doth tread upon another’s heel” (Hamlet, IV.vii, 3312).  The painting, sadly, foreshadows Siddall’s own death in 1862, from an overdose of laudanum.  Like Ophelia, it is not known if it was accidental or intentional but likely stemmed from deep personal sadness and a troubled relationship (in Siddall’s case, with PRB member Dante Gabriel Rosetti).

The painting, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, has long out-lived both its muse and master.


By L.I.



Curnow, Harriet, et al.  “Work in Focus:  Millais’s Ophelia, 1851-1852.”  Tate.  Web.  2 Aug.  2012.

Martineau, Jane et al.  Shakespeare in Art.  London: Morrel Publishers Limited, 2003.

Wood, Christopher.  The Pre-Raphaelites.  London:  Seven Dials, Cassel & Co., 2000.

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