Ophelia’s drowning has become a common theme in painting since Millais (1829-1896) painted his version at the young age of 22/23. It helped established him and it became a recurring theme for other Pre-Raphaelite painters (as my image-rich addendum shows). To try to understand its original success and enduring appeal I shall look at:


1)      The artist.

2)      The choice of playwright.

3)      The choice of character.

4)      The choice of moment of the character’s journey.

5)      The model.

6)      The location chosen for the painting and its execution

7)      The painting’s composition and use of symbolism.

8)      The painting’s original reception.

9)      The painting’s current status.

10)  A very brief comparison of Millais’ with some other Ophelia inspired paintings.



1        The artist.

John Everett Millais. He was born 8th June 1829 and was extremely precocious entering the Royal Academy schools at the age of 11 and winning all the prizes. One of the three founder members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848 (with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt) which they formed in opposition to the contemporary academic painting which they thought was derived from Raphael (Britannica).


2          The choice of playwright

Shakespeare’s plays were a common source of inspiration for Victorian painters– Millais himself had painted ‘Ferdinand lured by Aeriel’ a few years previously (approximately 1849).



3          The choice of character.

Ophelia – tragic suicide of very young woman (having been rejected by Hamlet and driven to distraction by Hamlet’s murder of her father, Polonius). Shakespeare was a favourite source for Victorian painters especially the tragic-romantic figure of Ophelia. (Tate, n01506_p.htm).  The PRB chose Ophelia to represent sorrowful, pathetic death (Marsh, p138) The Victorians had a fondness of tragic death and the waste of potential. For instance, the Henry Wallis’ (1830-1916) painting depicting the death of Chatterton (1856) (which also hangs in the Tate). Chatterton whilst starving suicided by the use of arsenic in a Holburn garret at the age of 17 being England’s youngest writer of mature verse and precursor of the Romantic Movement (Britannica). Although the choice of Ophelia was common for the time, the concept of painting a mad, drowning Ophelia was considered highly original.



4        The choice of moment of the character’s journey.

The drowning itself – she lets herself be drawn down after slipping into the brook. That is, a moment that is not shown in the play (therefore giving artists considerable imaginative scope) but only described by Gertrude (who for some strange reason stood by and did nothing) to the court. When Millais and the other artists discussed here composed their paintings the rejected woman was considered destined for a sad life with little hope of marriage – considered second-hand merchandise and further she was expected to remain faithful to her beloved. In art death by drowning or decline were considered appropriate endings (Marsh, pp 138-139). This is broadly similar with the fate of women in Shakespeare’s time and in particular at the time Hamlet is set. We all know of Hamlet’s aversion to his Mother’s sudden marriage to his hated uncle but as Susannah York pointed out to the Summer School of 1997 this quick spouse changing was more or less a woman’s only means of survival at this time[i]. Contrast this with today where there is a sense of “I will survive” and “plenty more fish in the sea”. Consider, for instance, the following extract from a middle-of-the-road American weekly which deals with the intended bride’s reaction to the groom changing his mind at the last moment.

A Non-Wedding Turns Into A Defining Moment In The Battle Of The Sexes

  (Couric was interviewing Nicole Contos, 27, a Manhattan kindergarten teacher who was to have got married to a 35-year-old lawyer, Tasos Michael. Bills for the wedding, to be paid by Nicole's father, a businessman who owns the American Banana Co., were said to be running as high as $125,000. )

Traumatised bride digs deep, smiles through her tears at last, and decrees: Party on! Guests decamp to the fancy hotel and hold a defiant non-wedding reception, the non-bride dancing as the band breaks into I Will Survive. Interviewer  Katie Courie suggested castration might be in order (TIME)


Contrast this with the submissive expression on Ophelia’s face but moving on …



5        The model.

Elizabeth Sidall – eventually to be Rossetti’s wife. But Rossetti, of course, also loved Jane Morris – wife of his friend William. He called her Lizzie or Guggums. A silent, reserved girl, the daughter or lower middle-class parents; she had a pale white skin, beautiful red hair, and a soulful expression (Wood,  p27). Rossetti and Siddal set up house together in 1852.



6        The location chosen for the painting and it’s execution.

The painting was done in two stages. The landscape was painted in summer of 1851 on the River  Ewell in Surrey. Ophelia herself was painted during the winter of 1851/2. Millais had asked the painter John Linnell if he knew of any ‘small deep river with willows overhanging the banks’ at Under River, near Sevenoaks (Story,  p26) but he chose Ewell where his friends the Lempriere family lived on the Hogsmill River[ii]. The precise field in which he painted was in fact owned by Effie’s friend Mr Gadeson (Ash, plate 12). He lodged with Holman Hunt four miles away on Surbiton Hill (Epsom and Ewell, preraph.htm) where he famously complained about the trials and tribulations in painting the background to Mrs Thomas Combe (on 2nd July 1851):

I sit tailor-fashion under an umbrella throwing a shadow scarcely larger than a halfpenny for eleven hours, with a child’s mug within reach to satisfy my thirst from the running stream beside me. I am threatened with a notice to appear before a magistrate for trespassing in a field and destroying the hay; likewise by the admission of a bull in the same field after the said hay be cut; am also in danger of being blown by the wind into the water, and becoming intimate with the feelings of Ophelia when that Lady sank to muddy death, ……. Certainly the painting of a picture under such circumstances would be greater punishment to a murderer than hanging (Millais, pp 119-20).


They were later joined by Charles Collins and moved to Worcester Park Farm which was closer to where they were working.


Siddal, fully dressed in an antique dress that Millais bought for her for £4 lay in a bath filled with water. It took nearly 4 months to complete the figure. There is a much recounted story of the candles going out beneath the bath and the subsequent threat of legal action for £50 damages if Millais did not pay the doctor’s fees. The action was settled and Siddal recovered, though she apparently nearly caught pneumonia. The brilliant colour and luminosity of ‘Ophelia’ is the result of the PRB technique of painting in pure colours onto a pure white background. The ground was sometimes laid fresh for each day’s work – the ‘wet white’ technique – which gave added brilliance and was used particularly here for the flowers(Speke, Ophelia.html) .



7        The painting’s composition and use of symbolism.

Although Shakespeare and indeed Ophelia were common themes at the time, Millais’ Ophelia is different to most in that it is neither a tableau vivant (FOOTNOTE: tableau vivant / , French  / n. (pl. tableaux vivants pronunciation same) Theatre: a silent and motionless group of people arranged to represent a scene. [French, literally ‘living picture’] (Concise Oxford Dictionary) nor is it particularly dramatic. ‘Everything is relegated to the scintillating natural details of the scene.’ (Rose, p54). She continues ‘They .. stand out like silk embroidery from the bed of weeds and grassy water plants’.


The use of symbolism is extensive and the summary here is mainly derived from (Marsh, 138) and  (Michael Warner, 96).

Willow – forsaken love.

Nettles – pain.

Daisies – innocence.

Pansies – signifying thought and vain love. (They are mentioned by Ophelia in Act 4, Scene 5 where they are among the flowers she has gathered from the fields.) Floating on Ophelia’s dress. According to Ash they also symbolise forsaken love (i.e. as does the willow).

Necklace of violets – faithful chastity and death of the young. Later in the scene of Ophelia’s madness she speaks of violets that ‘withered all when my father died’ Violets are associated with faithfulness (though they can also be associated with chastity and death of the young). Although Shakespeare makes us laugh at Polonius (for instance, in his habit of division and sub-division ‘tragical-comical-historical-pastoral’ in Act 2, Scene 2). She has a chain of them around her neck in the painting presumably suggesting both chastity, faithfulness and early death.

The purple loosestrife in the upper  right is probably intended as ‘long purples’ but Shakespeare in fact means a kind of wild orchis[iii] they are also referred to as ‘dead men’s fingers’ two lines later. (Jenkins, p374) or early purple orchid (Warner, p96).

The rose near her cheek and at the edge of the dress and the field rose on the bank may be a reference back to Laertes calling her ‘rose of May’ in Act 4, Scene 5.


The following flowers and plants are not in Shakespeare’s text but were added by Millais.

Poppy – death’s flower. (Warner, Rose and Ash)

Faded meadowsweet on the bank to the left of the purple loosestrife can signify ‘usefulness’ (Warner, 96) But to Ash the meadowsweet represents the futility of her death.

Forget-me-nots (self-explanatory).

The Pheasant’s eye near the pansies and the fritillary floating between the dress and the water’s edge are both associated with sorrow.


In addition to all these flowers and plants Millais added daffodils as well since, according to the poet Tennyson, Millais ‘wanted a bit of yellow’ (they can also mean ‘delusive hope’ which would have made them appropriate at least in some eyes) but Tennyson pointed out that they were inconsistent with the summer flowers in the work and also advised against the image of false hope, (which he considered by an inference of the combination of the daffodils with the wild roses) so Millais removed them. (Warner, p96 and Ash, plate 12). Even with this removal the pedantic will complain that not all of these flowers could have been in bloom at the same time.


The skull-like chiaroscuro (configuration of light and shade) [iv] may be related to his companion’s (Holman Hunt) painting of ‘The Hireling Shepherd’ at the same time.


There is a robin from one of the songs she sings ‘For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy’. (Ash, plate 12).


It is clear from all this that Millais thought very carefully about what to include and exclude and was not afraid to change his mind. For instance,  swimming water rat came and went and then came again before finally being deleted since Millais decided it was inappropriate for the melancholic mood of the scene[v].


The bright flowers and foliage contrasting with the drowning woman.



8        The painting’s original reception.

Hunt (who shared Millais’ trip to the Surrey countryside while painting his own ‘The Hireling Shepherd’[vi]) explained in a letter at the time (quoted by Landow, which is itself quoted in emory, Hunt.Shepherd.html) that with Ophelia ‘a new art was born’ (Wood, p82). The painting had been bought long before it was finished on 10 December 1851 by the dealer Henry Farrer for 300 guineas who already owned Millais’ ‘Christ in the Carpenter’s Shop’[vii]  Note that this purchase was before Siddal had even modelled for it – that was not until January 1852. The painting is considered by William Michael Rossetti (Wood, p33) to be the best likeness of her ever painted. The great PRB critic and champion Ruskin also praised it highly: ‘I came home last night with only Ophelia in my mind and wrote to my son nearly as follows. Nothing can be truer to Shakespear [sic] than Mr Millais’s Ophelia and there is a refinement in the whole figure – in the floating and sustaining dress – such as I never saw before expressed on canvas. In her most lovely countenance there is an Innocence disturbed by Insanity and a sort of Enjoyment strangely blended with lineament of woe.’ (Ash, plate 12). (The letter was written 4 May 1852 according to Marsh (Lives, p47). )


‘The insults were over’ summarised  Marsh in ‘The Pre-Raphaelites – Their Lives in Letters and Diaries’. Millais told his favourite patron, Thomas Combe ‘People had better buy my pictures now’ (Marsh, Lives, p45). However, Rusche’s research disagrees (Emory, WWW) ‘but the critics of 1852 found little to like about it’ and he cites Altick quoting the critic of the Athenaeum who judges the face totally inappropriate “The open mouth is somewhat gaping and gabyish,--the expression is in no way suggestive of her past tale. There is no pathos, no melancholy, no brightening up, no last lucid interval. If she die swan-like with a song, there is no sound or melody, no poetry in this strain" (301). But Rusche adds “Ophelia’s expression seems right to us now … emotionless, oblivious of her doom”. It seems from this that art critics at least still warmed to a declamatory style of acting despite this being the age of Macready (well one year after) and Irving was soon to arrive.



9        The painting’s current status.

The Tate Gallery came into being when Henry Tate donated a total of 65 paintings to the nation, together with £80,000 to build a gallery. Millais’ Ophelia was one of these original 65 (in 1894) indicating the success of the painting about one hundred years ago and fifty years after it was painted. Wood sees Millais as here combining the ‘romantic, medievalising spirit of Rossetti with Hunt’s meticulous observation’.  Further he speaks of a ‘Ruskinian intensity of natural observation’.


The painting is everywhere, Pre-Raphaelite calendars, posters and, of course, still at the Tate. A pictorial satire on it the ‘Hogsmill Ophelia’ has found its way into the possession of the allegedly Pre-Raphaelite singer composer Kate Bush[viii].



10    A very brief comparison of Millais’ with some other Ophelia inspired paintings.


John Bell in 1775-6 shows Mrs Lessingham in virginal white, innocent, broadly similar to the Waterhouse of 1910. An early blueprint for what was to come.


John Hamilton Mortimer. 1775. Focuses on the head and we see flowers and the vacant eyes – hinting at madness or at least distraction.


Benjamin West. 1805 or earlier. An engraving from Boydell’s Shakespeare prints. A less poetic, less morbid and more declamatory presentation than the Millais or any of the Waterhouses.


Joseph Severn’s Ophelia in 1831 may seem silly to some (such as Rusche) in the flowers used to spell out the name Hamlet but is true at least to the idea that a rejected woman should remain faithful to her lost love. Similarly, the overdose of poppies might not appeal as being too unsubtle and the lack of emotion or even madness in the expression. However, this spelling of the name may be excusable if we make Ophelia very young indeed – mid –teens perhaps.



Arthur Hughes Ophelia – exhibited the same year as Millais’, 1852 . Hughes[ix] did not meet Millais until varnishing day before the Academy opened (Wood, p52).

Here the bat and yellow slime make the ‘landscape especially haunting and eerie’ (Wood, p53). The semi-circular painting is bordered by part of Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s death ‘There is a willow … Fell in the weeping brook’ Another commentator writes ‘hauntingly atmospheric’ (Treuherz, p26) (Maybe so, but this begs the question as to its appropriateness for the source material. After all, this is supposed to be taken from Hamlet not Macbeth. So perhaps the Hughes for all its skill in conception and execution would be more appropriate for the suicide of Lady Macbeth (the bat could then be a familiar of Hecate) ‘Hughes was less fanatical in his rendering of detail, and more stagy in setting and composition’ (Treuherz, p26). There is detail in the foreground but elsewhere though suiting the conception perfectly, detail is missing. 1852 was a very good year for Ophelias since also that year Henry Nelson O’Neil exhibited his painting of Ophelia and Laertes. (His 1874 Ophelia is reproduced in the addendum to this essay.)  Ophelia on the willow branch dropping petals into a pond the moment before she falls into ‘the weeping brook’ – green rushes in her hair (suggesting insane abandon, perhaps). Far more broody landscape, note the bat and the darkness of trees and pond contrasting with Ophelia’s pale face and arms.


George Frederic Watts ‘Ophelia’ of 1864 with his then wife, the 17 year old Ellen Terry is too much to my mind a cross between the more famous ‘Choosing’ (which also uses flowers for symbolism) and a Lady Macbeth. It lacks the scope and detail of the Millais, Hughes (both) and all of the Waterhouses.


Jean Baptiste Bertrand ‘Ophelia’ 1873-6 steel engraving shows almost a mental hospital photographic type image of Ophelia. The elaborate dress, flowers, long hair, vacant eyes immediately associate the painting with other Ophelias.


Madeleine Lemaire’s ‘Ophelia’ of the 1880’s has Ophelia bare breasted and looking too much like a Titania or other fairy creature crossed with one of Dracula’s maidens (Stoker’s famous horror story arrived in the next decade – 1897 (Britannica)). The vampiric leering eyes indicating the sexual roots of her madness but male pointers tended to show her fully clothed.


J W Waterhouse ‘Ophelia’ 1889 version with Ophelia[x] outstretched on the grass had charm and delicacy but drew only muted applause from the critics (Hobson, p41). Apparently a painting very much in the shadow of his own ‘Lady of Shalott’ of the previous year (a very popular painting at the Tate Gallery). Djikstra defended the painting though, describing an Ophelia who is “rolling madly in a field, a flower toppled off her stem and seeking to regain the balance of nature” (as today, critics favoured hyperbole over balanced defensible statements).


J W Waterhouse ‘Ophelia’ 1894 version shows Ophelia siting on the willow overhanging the brook with poppies and daisies in her hair, daisies in her lap and with very long brown hair – extending beneath her bottom. Wearing an elaborate long dress. ‘This charming picture, eloquent in pose and gesture’ (Hobson, p56).




Rossetti ‘The First Signs of Madness’ 1868 painting  looks too much like his medieval King Arthur style paintings to be considered a relation of the Millais.



W G Simmonds ‘The Drowning of Ophelia’ 1910. Ophelia seems rather whimsical to my eye, looking too much like a tired Titania in her bower the morning after her intimacy with Bottom translated into an ass.


J W Waterhouse ‘Ophelia’ 1910 version of Ophelia He paints her very much as the tragic heroine, flowers in hair, more clutched by her left hand, dashing through the wood. Elaborate long dress.  ‘An arresting image, distinctively Pre-Raphaelite in feeling if not, strictly speaking, in terms of technique’ (Marsh, p140). Note the children seemingly in modern dress at the upper right (underlining the artist’s connection with the Newlyn School) ( Christian,  p118).


Ernest Hebert’s ‘Ophelia’ of circa 1910 shows a latent sexuality. He concentrates on the face, no long dress, just the staring eyes and the flowers. A good image of Ophelia.





Hunt seems to have been correct in his ‘a new art was born’ (Wood, p82) reaction to Millais’ Ophelia. The painting was a great success from the start and spawned many imitators. The painting is not to my personal taste, I prefer most of the other Ophelias itemised in the pictorial addendum to this essay (q.v.) particularly the later two Waterhouses and the two by Hughes. It is important to try to appreciate the painting in its own time, the sentimentality of the age (the success of the thematically similar Chatterton’s suicide), the position of unmarried and unmarriageable women in society, the youth of the PRB movement at this time (only four years), the strict confines of Art at the time[xi] and the Victorians fondness for Shakespeare (Macready had only retired from the stage the previous year( Encarta 99)). Within these parameters it is easy to understand the success of the painting at its launch. Today, such a painting would have a more difficult ride. Of course, the painting is still very popular but it is forever associated with its Victorian origins. Presenting such a work as a contemporary piece would be a completely different proposition. The painting now could be seen as being more in a sentimental vein that at its launch. A more practically-minded Gertrude would have torn her skirt up and thrown it to the poor Ophelia instead of standing by the brook composing poetry. Instead of a rejected woman submissively suiciding something more active would be expected (remember Courie and the genitals quote). Shakespeare continues to survive (usually with a not very submissive Ophelia – indeed often plain stroppy – e.g. Carter’s portrayal alongside Gibson’s Hamlet) but for Art a different moment from the play would be more acceptable today – perhaps ‘Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced’ (Act 2, Scene 1) could be used as a theme to pacify the politically correct yearnings of the masses of the 1990s.



Paintings in this essay are reproduced without permission but they are out of copyright and this is a non-profit making essay!


The End



[i] See also Henry VIII or ‘All Is True’ and how the life of his first Queen, Katherine, played so well in the 1997 Swan production by Jane Lapotaire, after their divorce takes a downward spiral in being forced into poorer and poorer conditions.


[ii] Millais had stayed with Captain Lempriere as a boy and had already (1846) met there Euphemia (Effie) Gray whom he eventually married (1854).


[iii] Which suits the name by the purple spike of its inflorescence.


[iv] Compare this with the famous oblique skull in the Ambassadors of  1533 by Hans Holbein the Younger which needs to be viewed from a certain angle.


[v] Mercifully, Kenneth Grahame did not write  ‘The Wind in the Willows’ until 1908.


[vi] Which itself has a connection with Shakespeare though a tenuous one – when exhibited it was accompanied by lines from King Lear Act 2 Scene 6.


[vii] Also known as Christ in the House of His Parents (1849-50)


[viii] Kate has not actually acknowledged the close visual link between the Ninth Wave photo(s) and Millais's 1851-52 painting, "Ophelia". An interviewer once suggested an indirect connection, in noticing the likeness of the Ninth Wave shots to a picture which Kate owns, painted by an unidentified artist, entitled "The Hogsmill Ophelia". Kate once mentioned that she bought this picture at a time when she hadn't anything like the money to afford it. It depicts an infant (or a doll) floating on its back in a dirty gutterlike area.  (Andrew Marvick (IED)  on gaffaweb)


[ix] Next to Madox Brown, Arthur Hughes was the most important pre-Raphaelite follower outside the Brotherhood.


[x] Waterhouse saw a retrospective exhibition of Millais’ work at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1886 and therefore was presumably with Millais’ Ophelia (Wood, p144).


[xi] Compare the reaction to ‘Christ in the Carpenter’s Shop’ of 1850 which dared to show a non-angelic Virgin Mary (which even shocked and disgusted Charles Dickens describing it as ‘mean, repulsive and revolting’ (Wood, 17)).








Bibliography for a Shakespeare Related Painting Essay


Altick, Richard D. Paintings from Books: Art and Literature in Britain, 1760-1900. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1985. (quoted by Harry Rusche in Emory’s Illustrated Shakespeare web pages.)


Ash, Russell Sir John Everett Millais (London: Pavilion Books Limited, 1996). ISBN 1 85793 792 9.


Christian, John (ed.) The Last Romantics: The Romantic Tradition in British Art Burne-Jones to Stanley Spencer (London: Lund Humphries,  1989) ISBN 0 85331 552 3. Catalogue of the exhibition of the same name held at the Barbican Art Gallery in 1989.


Concise Oxford Dictionary CD-ROM (Oxford: Oxford University Press,, Ninth Edition).


Morrow, Lance ‘Goodbye, Miss Havisham’, TIME Magazine DECEMBER 8, 1997 VOL. 150 NO. 24.


Dijstra, Bram. Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siecle Culture. (New York: Oxford UP, 1986). (quoted by Harry Rusche in Emory’s Illustrated Shakespeare web pages.)


Encarta 99 Multimedia Encyclopaedia (USA: Microsoft, 1998 – but updated monthly via the internet)


Encylopaedia Britannica 99 Multimedia Edition. (USA: Britannica, 1998)


Epsom and Ewell (UK: WWW,  now ) www.epsom.townpage.co.uk/preraph.htm.


Gutenberg, Hamlet (USA: FTP, now) Hamlet in plain text – from very large collection of out of copyright classics.


Hobson, Anthony  J W Waterhouse (London: Phaidon Press Limited,  1995) ISBN 0 7148 2864 5.


Landow, George P. William Holman Hunt and Typological Symbolism. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979)


Marsh, Jan Pre-Raphaelite Women, (London, Orion Publishing Group, 1987) ISBN 0 297 79177 X.


Marsh, Jan The Pre-Raphaelites – Their Lives in Letters and Diaries (London: Collins and Brown, 1996) ISBN 1 85585 246 2.


Millais, John Guille The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Milais (1899), quoted by Warner (p97) in The Pre-Raphaelites Leslie Parris (ed.), exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery.


MIT Hamlet (USA: WWW, now) Html version of Hamlet.


Riggs, Terry (UK: WWW Tate Art Gallery,  now but last updated February 1988) http://www.tate.org.uk ( for background on the paining including its dimensions.) /coll/pithtm/n01506_p.htm for Public Information Text on Ophelia by Millais.


Rose, Andrea The Pre-Raphaelites (London: Phaidon, 1994) ISBN 0 7148 3240 5.


Rusche, Harry (Emory University WWW, USA, now – though currently not available). This Illustrated Shakespeare site is the main reference for this essay for the non-Millais Ophelias.


Shakespeare, William, Hamlet ed. by Harold Jenkins ( London: Arden, 1982) The Arden Shakespeare.. ISBN 0-415-02683-0.


Speke (WWW, UK, now ) http://speke.ukc.ac.uk/secl/german/ophelia.html .


Story, A.T., The Life Of John Linnell, 1892, 2 – quoted in (MW, p97).


Treuherz, Julian Pre-Raphaelite Paintings (Manchester: Manchester City Art Gallery, 1993) ISBN 0 901673 43 9.


Warner, Michael contributer. Parris,  Leslie (Editor) The Pre-Raphaelites (London: Tate Gallery Publications, 1984) (This was the catalogue for the Tate’s 1984 Pre-Raphaelite exhibition). ISBN 1 85437 144 44.


Wood, Christopher. The Pre-Raphaelites. (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1994) ISBN 0 297 83345 6.