John Everett Millais. Ophelia, 1852.

Oil on canvas, approximately 30 x 40 inches. The Tate Gallery, London.

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John Everett Millais's Ophelia was shown at the same Royal Academy Exhibition in 1852 as the painting by Hughes; imagine the reaction of the viewer who had just seen Hughes's picture and then looked next at Millais's vibrant, detailed rendering of Ophelia's death, what one reviewer calls the "least practicable subject in the entire play" (The Art Journal XIV:174). The painting was harshly criticized by most reviewers (Altick 300-1), but The Art Journal, recognizing the technical skill of Millais, was willing to write off its deficiencies to youthful enthusiasm and inexperience: "Yet what misconception soever may characterise these works, they plainly declare that when this painter shall have got rid of the wild oats of his art, with some other vegetable anomalies, his future promises works of an excellent, which no human hand my have yet excelled" (XIV:174). The opinion of critics is that the details--"vegetable anomalies"--overwhelm Ophelia, thus reducing her anguish to a mere part of the scene. Millais did, in fact, carefully select and paint his flowers and flora so that most of them are identifiable.

Dozens of flowers and plants are depicted--violets, pansies, daisies, fritillaries, poppies, loosestrife, forget-me-nots, nettles, willows and many more. Nor, apparently (with typical Victorian romanticism) did he overlook the symbolic meaning of some of the flowers: the pansies signify love in vain or thought (the name is derived from the French penser) poppies signify sleep and death, fritillaries sorrow, violets death in youth and daisies innocence. Some of these, and some of the other flowers Millais includes, are referred to Act IV scene v of Shakespeare's tragedy, in which Ophelia recites the names of flowers she has been gathering. (Lister plate 73)

Ophelia is for us one of Millais's best-known and admired pictures, but the critics in 1852 found little to like about it. Altick cites an an example the critic of the Athenaeum who judges the face of Ophelia 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). Ophelia's expression seems right to us now; she has retreated so far into her madness that she lies motionless and emotionless, oblivious of her doom. Millais took pains to capture just the expression he wanted, as a study of his model Elizabeth Siddal reveals. The 1852 sketch (pencil, 9 x 12 inches) is owned by the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.