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THE OPHELIA BY MILLAIS: THE PARADIGM OF THE PRE-RAPHAELITES CANON

Ophelia from the Hamlet inspired many painters who tried to represent the tragic death of the Shakespearean character since the nineteenth century.

Among the many iconic interpretations, the Ophelia by the English artist John Everett Millais, exposed at the Tate Britain in London, is surely the most famous one.

The Pre-Raphaelites: young revolutionaries looking back to the past

The artist was only 23 years old when, between 1851 and 1852, he created the artwork, considered his masterpiece, and just nineteen when in 1848 he found, together with his contemporaries Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt, the painting style known to history as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Rejecting the classical canons evident in Raphael’s oeuvre, these young artists, belonging to the Victorian Era, wanted to renovate the academically oriented contemporary painting, recovering the purity of fifteenth-century’s production.

The literary inspiration

According to the fundamentals of the movement, the painting represents a literary subject taken from the the seventh scene in the fourth act of the Hamlet. It was the Danish queen Gertrude to remember the death of the young Ophelia, gone mad after losing her father murdered by her beloved Hamlet who, pretending to be crazy, rejected her love. Millais masterfully described the character’s psychology, treating the theme of the suicide with refined idealization.
Ophelia, who fell into the river while braiding flower garlands, lets the current drag her along while holding her hands in prayer, almost as to invoke a definitive liberation from the suffering that made her mad.She sensually opens her lips and, with an unperturbable expression and a blank look, she turns her eyes to the sky: she knows she is about to drown and she does nothing to save herself. She still floats but her clothes, weighed down by the water, will soon lead her to the “muddy death”, whose only witness is a robin behind her.

The Pre-Raphaelite naturalism

The luxuriant vegetation that frames Ophelia is painted with scientific rigor, according to the naturalistic approach that was the dominant stylistic element of the artistic movement. Driven by the need to portray the landscape from real life, Millais moved to Ewell in Surrey County in June 1851, where for six months he dedicated himself exclusively to the background: he first laid a layer of white color in order to accentuate the diffused brightness effect that characterizes the canvas and to give transparency to the brilliant colors that he applied with subtle brush strokes.
The botanical precision with which every detail of the colorful flora is made does not, however, prevent it from being loaded with that symbolic value, which is a constant in Pre-Raphaelites paintings. Millais depicts the plant species mentioned by Shakespeare: roses allude to beauty, daisies to innocence, stinging nettle flowers to pain, violets to the premature death and many others. He only adds one flower, the poppy, an umpteenth reference to death.

A common destiny

The painter finished the canvas in his London studio during the winter of 1852, painting the image of Ophelia for last. The model chosen for the painting was the nineteen years old Elizabeth Siddal, also known as Lizzy, a young artist living a dissolute life who, embodying the ideal of refined beauty pursued by the Pre-Raphaelites, became one of their muses. To faithfully depict her clothes swollen with water, Millais forced her into exhausting pose sessions immersed in a bath tub, causing her a dangerous bronchitis that definitively compromised her weak psychophysical health.
Lizzy precipitated into a depressed state and, just like Ophelia, she committed suicide in 1862, ten years after Millais’s artwork was exposed at the Royal Academy in London.

Image: Ophelia, by Sir John Everett Millais, 1851- 1852 from the Tate Britain archive.

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