In this post, I take a closer look at the remarkably intricate Ophelia by British artist and founding member of the Pre-Raphaelites, Sir John Everett Millais.
Key Facts, Ideas, and Subject
- The figure in the painting is Ophelia, a character from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act IV, Scene VII. She is depicted lying in the stream singing, just before she drowns. Below is an extract from the play which poetically describes her death:
"There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, 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 coronet 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,
Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death."
- In plain words, she climbed a willow tree to gather exotic flowers. The branch broke and she fell into the "weeping brook" (small river). Her garments "spread wide and mermaid-like" kept her afloat at first from the air trapped underneath. But, she was eventually pulled down by her garments, "heavy with their drink... to her muddy death".
- The painting was first exhibited in 1852 at London's Royal Academy of Arts. It received a mixed reception, with many critics praising his technique, yet questioning the subject matter. One critic wrote in The Times, "there must be something strangely perverse in an imagination which souses Ophelia in a weedy ditch, and robs the drowning struggle of that lovelorn maiden of all pathos and beauty".
- It was painted in two separate stages: first for the landscape and second for Ophelia. Millais and the Pre-Raphaelites placed considerable importance on the landscape, which explains the remarkably intricate detail used for the background area in this painting.
- He started painting the landscape part in July 1851. Instead of painting from the comforts of his studio, he immersed himself in nature and painted on location. But this did not go without its challenges, as he wrote:
"The flies of Surrey are more muscular, and have a still greater propensity for probing human flesh. I am threatened with a notice to appear before a magistrate for trespassing in a field and destroying the hay ... and am also in danger of being blown by the wind into the water. Certainly the painting of a picture under such circumstances would be greater punishment to a murderer than hanging."
- He reportedly painted the landscape for up to 11 hours a day, six days a week, over five months in 1851.
- Due to poor weather conditions, Millais ended up having a small hut created later that year which was "made of four hurdles, like a sentry-box, covered outside with straw". Fellow Pre-Raphaelite, William Holman Hunt, was impressed by the hut and had a similar one built for himself.
- Ophelia was modeled by Elizabeth Siddal, who was 19 years old at the time. Millais dressed her in a silver embroidered dress which he purchased from an antique shop for four pounds. He wrote to Thomas Combe in March 1852 about the dress, "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".
- Below is a self-portrait by Siddal completed after she modeled as Ophelia:
- Millais had Siddal lay in a bathtub filled with water at his studio in London as he completed the second part of the painting over four months. Below is one of his studies of her face:
- Millais originally included a small water rat in the painting, but it was met with confusion: "Hunt's uncle and aunt came, both of whom understood most gratifyingly every object except my water rat. The male relation, when invited to guess at it, eagerly pronounced it to be a hare. Perceiving by our smiles that he had made a mistake, a rabbit was then hazarded. After which I have a faint recollection of a dog or a cat being mentioned." Millais ended up painting over the water rat.
- The painting influenced many artists, such as Salvador Dalí, who wrote in 1936, “How could Salvador Dalí fail to be dazzled by the flagrant surrealism of English Pre-Raphaelitism? The Pre-Raphaelite painters bring us radiant women who are, at the same time, the most desirable and most frightening that exist.” He also created his own rendition of Ophelia, shown here.
- The painting is currently held at Tate Britain for those who wish to see the intricate detail in person.
The first thing which comes to mind when I see this painting is the remarkably intricate detail. The whole painting is carefully rendered, even the trees, flowers, and plants in the background.
Below are some close-ups to give you a better idea of the virtuosity of this work. In the first image of Ophelia, notice the subtle white outline surrounding her hand, indicating the presence of water. Small touches like this can go a long way in depicting realism.
In the leaves, notice how they are carefully rendered in light, but get gradually more vague as they recede into shadow. This creates a strong sense of depth.
The area below is particularly sophisticated, with a branch and leaves shooting out into the sunlight, creating an interesting contrast between light and shadow; or delicate and vague.
The plants below would have been challenging to paint, with the awkward shapes and complex shadow arrangements.
Color and Light
The painting features rich colors of nature against the soft, skin tones of Ophelia. The saturated greens give a feel of the luscious, unkempt nature.
In terms of color temperature, the lights appear slightly warm compared to the darks. This is particularly evident in the greens: notice how the greens in shadow are much closer to blue than the greens in light.
Throughout the dense landscape are small bursts of light and color to depict the exotic flowers. As mentioned earlier in the post, Ophelia was collecting these exotic flowers before she fell into the stream.
The colors used for Ophelia are soft and weak. She appears relatively fragile as she lay in the stream, before her "muddy death". Light colors are used for the subject's face and hands, drawing your attention towards this area. You can see how much lighter the subject's face is compared to the surrounding landscape in the grayscale image below:
(If you want to learn more about color mixing and painting in general, I invite you to join my free email course, 7 Days to Better Paintings).
The composition is rather simple if you look past all the intricate detail. It boils down to Ophelia laying in the river, surrounded by nature.
Ophelia's face is partially framed by nature, with the top of the frame being the brown tree trunk and branches, the left of the frame being the plants shooting up from the stream, and the bottom of the frame being the green edge of the shore.
In the photo below, I have segmented the painting into thirds both horizontally and vertically. Notice how Ophelia is positioned almost directly along that lower horizontal line and how her torso is positioned around the bottom-left intersection. These are considered to be aesthetically pleasing areas in a painting.
Finally, you may have noticed the unusual shape of the painting, with the top corners being curved. Though I was unable to find any information on why Millais opted for this shape.
(You might be interested in my Painting Academy course. I go into more detail on how to design interesting compositions for painting.)
Key Takeaways from Ophelia
Here are some of the key takeaways from this painting:
- Intricate paintings like this are not created overnight; they take weeks, months, or sometimes even years to create.
- Traditionally in portrait painting, the background is pushed back and simplified. But there are no rules against painting the background with just as much detail as the main figure, like Millais did in Ophelia. Just make sure there is something to differentiate the figure from the background. In this case, Millais used contrast in value: the figure's face and hands are much lighter than the surrounding nature.
- Painting from life allows you to see with all the subtle nuances which can get lost in a photo. The remarkable intricacy of Ophelia suggests it was painted in a controlled studio environment, but Millais preferred to paint on location.
- If you segment the composition into thirds both ways, the intersecting lines are considered to be aesthetically pleasing areas to position your focal points.