Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais (1851-1852)

Ophelia depicts Ophelia, a character who goes insane and drowns herself after her lover, Hamlet, kills her father in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. Although Ophelia killing herself is not part of Shakespeare’s play, the scene is described very well by Hamlet’s mother Queen Gertrude. Millais interpreted these details beautifully in this painting.

You can see Ophelia floating in the water, yet she begins to sink. The fabric of her dress looks like its helping her float, but you can see that it is heavy and indeed pulling her down. Her hands and palms are faced up and her face has a sleepy, haunted look to it, seeming like she gave up and has accepted to die. Millais put a lot effort into the actual nature, and it seems to accommodate her ‘floating’ body (the river fits her body perfectly). For example, the branches of the willow tree seem to surround and face her, as well as the white poppy bush. As it turns out, violets are a sign of faithfulness and she is wearing a necklace of them (Ophelia is faithful to her father), and the red poppies she is holding are a symbol of death (She is clearly about to die). Shakespeare does not even mention red poppies, they are something Millais depicts on his own, with good purpose. Also, pansies are a symbol of ‘love in vain’ (Her lover killed her father) and daisies of innocence (Ophelia was very young).

Ophelia and her death was a popular subject at the time and there’s a reason Millais’s painting was so well remembered. He painstaking copied the nature with close attention to detail at an actual river setting. His colors are bright and vivid and contrast with the ghostly Ophelia. In Ophelia the painting, Millais has painted a scene caught between life and death when it comes to both nature and the dying young woman, and her fate itself.

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