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“Ophelia” by John Everett Millais

John Everett Millais - Ophelia - Google Art Project

“Ophelia” by John Everett Millais

“Ophelia” by John Everett Millais depicts Ophelia, a character in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet; the scene is described in Act IV, Scene VII of Hamlet in a speech by Queen Gertrude. Ophelia is singing while floating in a river in Denmark before she drowns. This Pre-Raphaelite work was not highly regarded when first exhibited at the Royal Academy, but has since come to be admired and influential for its beauty and its detailed and accurate depiction.

The episode depicted is not seen onstage, in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, but is described in the play. Ophelia’s death has been praised as one of the most poetically written death scenes in literature. Ophelia has fallen into the river from a tree overhanging it while gathering flowers. She lies in the water singing songs, as if unaware of her danger:

“incapable of her own distress”.

Her clothes, the trapping air, have allowed her to stay afloat temporarily:

“Her clothes spread wide,

And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up.”

But eventually,

“her garments, heavy with their drink,

Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay” down “to muddy death.”

Ophelia’s pose with her open arms and upwards gaze resembles the traditional portrayals of saints or martyrs but has also been interpreted as erotic.

Ophelia is a young noblewoman of Denmark and potential wife of Prince Hamlet, and she is one of only two female characters in the play. Ophelia has been a frequent subject in artwork, often in a Romantic or Classical style. This painting has been widely referenced and imitated in art, film and photography, notably in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet where it formed the basis for the portrayal of Ophelia’s death.

Millais - Ophelia (detail)

The artist, Sir John Everett Millais, was a Victorian-era English painter who was one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded at his home in London. Millais became a famous exponent of the style with this painting.  By the mid-1850s Millais was moving away from the Pre-Raphaelite style and developing a new and powerful form of realism in his art.

Exploring Pre-Raphaelite Art

Ophelia

  • Title:                      Ophelia
  • Français:               Ophélie
  • Artist:                    John Everett Millais
  • Medium:               Oil on canvas
  • Date:                      1851
  • Style:                      Pre-Raphaelite
  • Dimensions:        Height: 76.2 cm (30 in). Width: 111.8 cm (44 in).
  • Museum:              Tate Britain

John Everett Millais

  • Name:                    Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Baronet
  • Born:                      1829 – Southampton, England
  • Died:                       1896 (aged 67) – Kensington, London
  • Nationality            English
  • Notable works:

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“Great events make me quiet and calm; it is only trifles that irritate my nerves.” – Queen Victoria

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Photo Credit: John Everett Millais [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons