John Everett Millais (1829-1896) was a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, painters who scorned the elegant but, they felt, mechanistic style of Renaissance artists like Raphael and Michelangelo. Millais emulated instead the fine detail, intense colors, and complex compositions of 14th-century Italian and Flemish art. For him, exact replication of reality was the key. Viewers of Ophelia in 1852 found delight in the exquisite detail of the natural setting: beautiful, botanically exact flowers, moss, and reeds “mirrored as in a glass.”2 They commented positively on the realistic painting of the leaves—green, spotted, corroded, or broken—the detail in her brocade dress, and the red and blue flowers of her “weedy trophies” (woven garlands of flowers). Yet Millais was criticized that year by the London Times, whose reviewer wrote that the painting “robs the drowning struggle of that love-lorn maiden of all pathos and beauty, while it studies every petal of the darnel and anemone floating on the eddy. . . . ” (http://www.tate.org.uk/ophelia/travels_frf_londontimes.htm). Reviewers noted that Millais should have shown evidence in her face of her sad life story (her father killed by Hamlet). However, for Millais her life story was reflected in the flowers and trees that surrounded her; most were mentioned in Shakespeare's play. These flowers and trees apparently were chosen to symbolize the elements of her short life (http://www.tate.org.uk/ophelia/subject_symbolism.htm): forsaken love (weeping willow); innocence (daisy); ingratitude (crow flowers); pain (nettles); entanglement (crownet weeds); male sexuality (purple loosestrife); love and beauty (rose); and faithfulness, chastity, and death in youth (violets). Some too see an unsettling face with a nose and 2 hollow eyes hidden near the forget-me-nots.
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John Everett Millais (1829-1896), British. Ophelia, 1851-1852. Oil on canvas, 76 × 112 cm (30 × 44 in). Tate Britain, London, England (http://www.tate.org.uk/ophelia). Image © 2007 Tate, London.
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