Ophelia | John Everett Millais | 1852
The painting Ophelia, by the English pre-raphaelite John Everett Mill, illustrates the instant before the dearth of the character, told in the act IV, scene 7 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It seems that the young Ophelia was gathering flowers in a nearby river when she stumbles and falls in it. Unaware of the danger, the girl floats as she sings peacefully, until she begins to sink and drowns. But Shakespeare illustrates this better with the poem itself:
QUEEN GERTRUDE :
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.
To paint this canvas, the artist couldn’t travel to Denmark, the location of Shakespeare work. Instead, he had to paint it in the English countryside. Millais, known for getting himself into dangerous and uncomfortable places to paint landscapes, had to paint Ophelia as he dealt with snow, wind, flesh eating flies and such variables typical of outdoor painting. The artist himself will tell that the criminals sentenced to death suffer less than him painting the canvas. He was probably exaggerating but, in the end, it was his decision.
The comments that they make on Ophelia mainly refer to the technique of the artist and the flora that surrounds the character, which are undoubtedly flawless. But personally, I find more interesting the ability of Millais to illustrate the dramatism of the scene. Ophelia’s body reminds us the martyrs of Christendom; and, her expression, inert and absorbed, gives us the impression that the character is dreaming her own death.