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'Ophelia' by John Everett Millais

I thought I would focus on a quick overview of one of my all time favourite paintings and a classical masterpiece by the divine Millais. I have felt so inspired to write about this painting, since seeing a copy of it on social media. This piece means a great deal to me, as not only was it the first piece of work that really lured me into learning about art history but it also spiralled my love of the pre-raphaelite period of artwork.

So, the story of Ophelia:

This painting is based off of the Shakespeare play of Hamlet, particularly the scene of Ophelia drowning herself from madness. The model of Ophelia in this painting is none other than the beautiful Elizabeth Siddall- later wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Millais painted her while she was laid in a bathtub in his studio in London, and subsequently she got really rather ill but survived due to a Millais paying her medical bills. Ophelia was painted between 1851-1852, the landscape, being in a different location to that of the model, at Hogsmill River in Surrey. Millais was a plein air painter, meaning he painted outside- against the norm of this period. Which helped to create a realistic and more detailed painting, overall. This was an expectation of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, which Millais established, as the nature was always thought to be equal to the figure.


The plants, all painted with incredibly accurate botanical detail, all hold deep iconography for the painting. The roses surrounding her body and on the river bank correlate to her nickname of ‘rose of may’ by her brother within the play. The nettles and daisies are iconography for pain and forsaken love. Pansys relate to egotistical love. The violets around Ophelia neck represent faithfulness, virginity and death of youth. And finally, the poppies are a signal for death. all iconography which inter-relates to the story of poor Ophelia.

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