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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

“Ophelia” by John Everett Millais

John Everett Millais - Ophelia

“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 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 in this painting is not seen onstage 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. The trapped air in her clothes allowed her to stay afloat temporarily but eventually led to her death.

“incapable of her own distress.
Her clothes spread wide,
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up.
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.

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.

Ophelia

Ophelia is a character in William Shakespeare’s drama Hamlet. She is a young, beautiful noblewoman of Denmark with whom Hamlet has fallen in love. Ophelia in her innocent and is manipulated by her father and her brother, to spy on Hamlet, who she also loves. As she lapses into torment, she remains maidenly, singing songs about flowers and finally drowning in the river amid the flower garlands she had gathered.

At Ophelia’s funeral, Hamlet’s mother sprinkles flowers on Ophelia’s grave and declares she wished Ophelia could have been Hamlet’s wife. Ophelia’s brother then jumps into Ophelia’s grave and in remorse for his actions asks for the burial to wait until he has held her in his arms one last time and proclaims how much he loved her. Hamlet then challenges her brother and claims that he loved Ophelia more than “forty thousand” brothers could.

Pre-Raphaelites

The Pre-Raphaelites was a group of English painters, poets, and art critics, founded in 1848. The group’s intention was to reform art by rejecting what it considered the mechanistic approach first adopted by the artists who succeeded Raphael and Michelangelo, hence the name “Pre-Raphaelite”. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood sought a return to the abundant detail, intense colours and complex compositions of Pre-Raphaelite Italian art.

The Pre-Raphaelites focused on painting subjects from modern life and literature often used historical costumes for accuracy. They painted directly from nature itself, as accurately as possible and with intense attention to detail.

The Pre-Raphaelites defined themselves as a reform movement, created a distinct name for their art, and published a periodical to promote their ideas. A later, medieval influence extended the movement’s power into the twentieth century with artists such as John William Waterhouse.

Exploring Pre-Raphaelite Art

Reflections

  • Why has Ophelia been such a frequent subject in art?
  • What is the moral of Ophelia’s story?
  • Does this painting match the ambitions of the Pre-Raphaelites?
  • Why is this painting so memorable?
  • Why is Ophelia is one of the most popular Pre-Raphaelite works in the Tate collection?

Ophelia

  • Title:              Ophelia
  • 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

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“Art is not a study of positive reality, it is the seeking for ideal truth.”
– John Ruskin

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

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