Ophelia from John Everett Millais (Tate Galery)

1997 – Tate Gallery, London (UK)

Ophelia was part of the original Henry Tate Gift in 1894 and remains one of the most popular Pre-Raphaelite works in the Tate’s collection. Shakespeare was a frequent source of inspiration for Victorian painters. Millais’s image of the tragic death of Ophelia, as she falls into the stream and drowns, is one of the best-known illustrations from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.

John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were the founding members of a group of artists called the Pre-Raphaelites formed in 1848. They rejected the art of the Renaissance in favour of art before Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo (15-16 centuries). The Pre-Raphaelites focused on serious and significant subjects and were best known for painting subjects from modern life and literature often using historical costumes. They painted directly from nature itself, as truthfully as possible and with incredible attention to detail. They were inspired by the advice of John Ruskin, the English critic and art theorist in Modern Painters (1843-60). He encouraged artists to ‘go to Nature in all singleness of heart.rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing.’

The Pre-Raphaelites developed techniques to exploit the luminosity of pure colour and define forms in their quest for achieving ‘truth to nature’. They strongly believed that respectable divine art could only be achieved if the artist focused on the truth and what was real in the natural world.

Ophelia by Millais is the most popular postcard sold by the Tate and yet the subject is not a happy one. Ophelia is a character in Hamlet, by William Shakespeare. She is driven mad when her father, Polonius, is murdered by her lover, Hamlet. She dies while still very young in grief and madness. The events shown in Millais’s Ophelia are not actually seen on stage. Instead they are referred to in a conversation between Queen Gertrude and Ophelia’s brother Laertes. Gertrude describes how Ophelia fell into the river whilst picking flowers and slowly drowned, singing all the while.

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Hamlet, Act 1V, Scene V11

Laertes: Drowned! O, where?

Queen Gertrude: There is a willow grows askant the brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of crowflowers, 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 crownet 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,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.

Laertes: Alas, then she is drowned?

Queen Gertrude: Drowned, drowned