Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Arts and Madness


Ophelia
by
John Everett Millais 1829-1896

Ophelia by Millais is the most popular postcard sold by the Tate and yet the subject is not a happy one. Ophelia is a character in Hamlet, by William Shakespeare. She is driven mad when her father, Polonius, is murdered by her lover, Hamlet. She dies while still very young in grief and madness. The events shown in Millais's Ophelia are not actually seen on stage. Instead they are referred to in a conversation between Queen Gertrude and Ophelia's brother Laertes. Gertrude describes how Ophelia fell into the river whilst picking flowers and slowly drowned, singing all the while.

Laertes Drowned! O, where?

Queen Gertude There is a willow grows askant the brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of crowflowers, 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 crownet 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,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death

Laertes Alas, then she is drowned?

Queen Gertrude Drowned, drowned

Most of the flowers in Ophelia are included either because they are mentioned in the play, or for their symbolic value. Millais observed these flowers growing wild by the river in Ewell. Because he painted the river scene over a period of five months, flowers appear next to those that bloom at different times of the year.

Crow flowers in the foreground look similar to buttercups and symbolise ingratitude or childishness
The weeping willow tree leaning over Ophelia is a symbol of forsaken love
The nettles that are growing around the willow's branches represent pain.
The daisies floating near her right hand represent innocence. Ophelia also mentions 'There's a daisy' in act 4, scene 5.
The purple loosestrife on the upper right hand corner of the painting, near the edge of the frame, alludes to 'long purples' in the play. Shakespeare actually meant the purple orchid.
The pink roses that float by her cheek and her dress and the white field roses growing on the river bank, may refer to Act IV, Scene V when Laertes calls his sister, 'rose of May'. They are also included for their many symbolic meanings such as youth, love and beauty.
The crownet weeds mentioned in the text refer to garlands of weeds. They may
symbolise entanglement, choking, death and decline.
The garland of violets around Ophelia's neck refer to Act IV, Scene V. 'I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died: they say he made a good end.' Violets are a symbol of faithfulness and they can also symbolise chastity and death in the young.


Some people believe there is a skull hidden within the painting. Before the location is revealed, have a look and see if you can see it (once it is pointed out, it is hard not to see it). Look to the left of the forget-me-nots on the right of the painting, a nose and two hollow eyes can just be made out. This may well be just the light and shade in the foliage or the skull may be a reminder of death and hint at what is about to happen.

Millais's model was a young woman aged 19 years called Elizabeth Siddall. She was discovered by his friend, Walter Deverell, working with a needle in a milliner's, and would later become the wife of one of Millais's friends, Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1860. This was the only time Elizabeth posed for Millais. She was described as "tall and slender, with red, coppery hair and bright consumptive complexion."


She was Rossetti's muse, inspiring his artistic production. He painted her as an enigmatic woman who never looks straight at the spectator unlike the directness of her own self-portrait. They married in 1860, but; "The marriage turned into a catastrophe. Siddall's melancholia and illness prevailed.She was anxious, restless, in part because of Rossetti's infidelities, heavily addicted to laudanum, to release her from the pain of both disease and distress." (Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic by Elisabeth Bronfen, 1992, p.176)


In 1862 she died from an overdose of laudanum; "perhaps accidental or perhaps a suicide; in either case the overdose may have been related to post-natal depression after the birth of her stillborn child the previous year." (The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites by Elizabeth Prettejohn, Tate, London, 2000, page 74).


Suggested Reading:
Over her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic by Elisabeth Bronfen 1992
The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites by Elizabeth Prettejohn, Tate, London, 2000

Sources:

Tate Britain

Ophelia

Rossetti

*******

Have a wonderful day everyone! Take care.


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N Posted by Rain at 8/29/2007 11:09:00 AM

3 Comments

  • Anonymous Candy posted at 8:56 PM  
    Do you remember seeing this painting together :)

    So beautiful!

    XOXO Candy
  • Anonymous Stephanie Pina posted at 4:20 AM  
    Lucinda Hawksley's biography of Siddal is a must read! www.lucindahawksley.com


    Nice post!
  • Anonymous tom posted at 5:31 PM  
    Are you an English teacher?? Very informative posting, thanks!!
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