Depicting the moment that Ophelia takes her own life after discovering that her lover, Hamlet has killed her father, Millais’ Ophelia transforms the tragic words of Shakespeare into an image of arresting visual beauty. A painting of astonishing detail, in typical Victorian fashion, each exquisitely rendered flower has a symbolic meaning: the chain of violets that Ophelia wears around her neck represent faithfulness and chastity, the daisies innocence and nettles pain. The famed flame-haired Pre-Raphaelite muse, Elizabeth Siddal was the model, posing for long periods of time fully clothed, submerged in a bath of water. Millais put oil lamps under the bath to keep the water warm, but on one occasion he was so engrossed in his work that he didn’t notice that they had gone out. Lying deathly still, Siddal nearly froze and became ill, her angry father later charging Millais for the £50 doctors bill.
See the painting on view at Tate Britain, its home for over a hundred years. If you are passing, the house in which Millais painted his great masterpiece still stands at 7 Gower Street, just around the corner from the British Museum.
Words by Annabel Matterson. The Iris Letter October 2016.