John Everett Millais - Ophelia

by Alexandra Tuschka


The English painter Millais chose a scene from "Hamlet" for this work and with it had a lasting influence on the iconography of a character: the drowned Ophelia. The drowned girl can be seen in a pompous dress. She is floating in an almost still body of water, with overgrown nature all around her. Many plants are worked out in such detail that they are easily identifiable.


The young woman is Ophelia, the main female character of Shakespeare's play. Ophelia was forbidden to love Hamlet by her father Polonius. When Hamlet accidentally kills Polonius and is subsequently banished, the girl is seized by madness. That she is found dead floating in a river is what the play tells us. Whether it was really suicide or just an accident remains open. The more tragic story is certainly a suicide, which is why the painter Millais also gives us subtle hints for this assumption, for example through the language of flowers.


The unusual choice of motif was novel at the time. As a model for the famous literary figure he chose Elisabeth Siddal, the wife of the painter Dante Rossetti. With her pale skin and reddish hair, she was an unusual choice of striking beauty. 

Millais created the painting in two stages. In the summer of 1851, he first painted the landscape. This was fraught with some obstacles: He complained about mosquitoes, about the danger of being blown into the water, and received a complaint for trespassing on a field. However, he remained true to his claim of a detailed rendering according to nature. When it got colder, he even had a hut built for this purpose. In the winter of the same year, he added Ophelia. 


The dress for his model, whom everyone affectionately called "Siddal," Millais had bought for 4 English pounds. It was "old and dirty" but still "splendid with its silver floral pattern." With the dress, the girl lay down in a filled bathtub. For 4 months Millais was to work on the painting. A well-known anecdote tells that Millais once forgot to replace the candles under the tub, whereupon Siddal became ill. Only when Millais agreed to pay the £50 medical bill did the girl's father refrain from legal action. 


Working with floral language, Millais struck a chord with Victorian contemporaries. He added other plants to the mentions in Shakespeare. Willow, nettle, pansies, and daisies symbolize the grief of unrequited love, but also the innocence and purity of Ophelia's affections. These flowers float above the dress of the dead body. The girl made herself a necklace out of violets before her death. These are mentioned separately in the play: Ophelia herself says "I wanted to give you some violets, but they all wilted because my father died." The violets thus stand as a symbol of early and unexpected passing. Millais also added the poppy, the flower of death, as well as the self-explanatory "forget-me-not." Ophelia's pose with open arms represents her pure intentions and helplessness, and has subsequently been adopted by numerous artists. 


John Everett Millais - Ophelia

Oil on camvas, 76 cm x 1,12 m, 1851–1852, Tate, London