Ophelia 1851-2 by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896

Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-2, Tate Collection

Current display: on loan to Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts (Moscow, Russia).

The scene depicted is from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act IV, Scene vii, in which Ophelia, driven out of her mind when her father is murdered by her lover Hamlet, drowns herself in a stream.

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).

Text courtesy of Tate