Millais’ “Ophelia”

It just so happens, that yesterday in my 19th Century art history class we discussed Millais’ Ophelia. I originally touched on this topic in regards to Elizabeth Siddal as the model (Siddal Post #3).

Originally, I interpreted the painting as Ophelia being recently deceased. However, I wanted to add some additional thoughts on the matter while it’s still fresh in my mind (that contradicts this suggestion).

I’m not as familiar with Shakespeare’s work as I should be, but it is possible that in this painting, Ophelia isn’t dead yet. She floats in a stupor, with her lips slightly parted as if whispering a melody to herself before being drug down by the weight of her wet garments. This makes sense because her hands are held in such a way as to suggest there is still a touch of life left inside of her. Her cheeks also hold the faint glow of rosiness associated with life. Her life will end shortly after this moment though, so I think it was a deliberate choice to represent her with paler skin (that doesn’t have a healthy flush to it) to portray her transitioning from life to death.

As a side note, I didn’t even realize this wasn’t a typical “rectangle” canvas, but creates a round arc along the top. It may have been intended for a special frame or niche. I like to think that it mimics the way tree branches curve and encompass their surroundings like an umbrella though.

The last little detail (it’s better viewed on a larger image of the work) is that there is a little bird (perhaps a robin) sitting within the branches of the tree (on the left side). If only the bird could speak, it could take flight, alerting others of Ophelia’s dire situation.

I would love to hear what your interpretations of the work are, so comment away!

Image pulled from


Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal (Siddal Post #7)

Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal (Siddal Post #8)

Clerk Saunders. (1857).  Signed and dated “EES/1857”. Watercolor, bodycolor, and colored chalks on paper laid on stretcher (Marsh and Nunn 117).

Siddal started Clerk Saunders as a painting in December 1856 and completed it in 1857 (Chapman and Meacock 103; Marsh and Nunn 117). However, a woodblock illustration was produced for a future ballad book in May 1854. Additional studies can be seen in the 1866 photographic record of her work. Inspiration came from the old Scottish ballad Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border by Scott’s (Marsh and Nunn 117). Art prior to the High Renaissance (such as Gothic art and medieval illumination), also influenced Siddal’s work (Prettejohn 183).

Within this painting, May Margaret encounters the ghost of her murdered lover, Clerk Saunders, who appears after making his unearthly entrance through the wall to renew his vows. Kneeling on the bed, she kisses the wand to show her fidelity (Marsh and Nunn 117; Prettejohn 183). Both figures appear ghostly and pale, and this heightens the dramatic scene of the dead confronting the living. Through the window, dawn’s light pours over the slumbering medieval city. On the shelf an empty hour-glass stands, which could symbolize death, as one’s life has literally run out of time (Prettejohn 183).

The theme of love/desire, use of bright colors, a medieval connection, and a literary reference represents several important Pre-Raphaelite characteristics. Her style is defined by compositional layering, enclosed spaces, attenuated figures, and jewel-like colors. (Prettejohn 183).

This painting also reflects upon the contemporary issues between class and gender. Like Siddal’s Lady Clare and Keat’s Isabella painted by Millais in 1849, this is a story about love between social unequals. Items throughout the room (such as the prie-dieu she is kneeling upon which was used to aid in prayer), suggests that May Margaret is religiously devoted, as was proper for women (Marsh and Nunn 117). The podium decorated with an angel, holds a manuscript. The alcove also has a manuscript and what looks to be an apple. Looking closely at the piece, there seems to be a cross hidden in the shadows on the right side of the alcove behind May Margaret (though it could just be me trying to create more religious references)! Looking at Clerk Saunders, I wonder if he was some type of knight, as there looks to be a crest/emblem on his robes? I’m sure the flowers symbolize something too; perhaps life because they are alive (for the time being anyway) and if someone knows the specific type of flower, there could be a more specialized meaning behind it.

To me, May Margaret seems could be partaking in witchcraft (another popular movement within Pre-Raphaelite work). Did she “summon” Saunders to appear? I believe it could be a possibility; her manuscripts are closed, if there is a cross in the shadows, it could symbolize her wavering faith because it isn’t displayed prominently, plus she has a wand! Just my thoughts though. Also, this could be another self-portrait-the woman has that red hair again!

Comparisons can be made between Siddal’s Clerk Saunders & Morris’ La Belle Iseult. They both have similar environments of an enclosed chamber and a bed with crumpled sheets (Prettejohn 186; Chapman and Meacock 103). I also noticed that in La Belle Iseult, the manuscript is open, which could suggest her strong religious devotion.

Screen shot 2013-03-08 at 10.24.04 AM

William Morris’ La Belle Iseult1858

Clerk Saunders was exhibited at the 1857 Russell Place Show and also included in the British Art exhibition that was sent to America later in that same year. Charles Eliot Norton of Harvard then purchased the painting. Charles Fairfax Murray later acquired it and inscribed on the back: “This picture by Mrs Rossetti, esteemed by her husband the best of her works,” and later continues, “Gabriel Rossetti himself worked on this picture as was customary with him, as Mr Burne-Jones told me long ago.” However, the painting doesn’t display D.G. Rossetti’s touch and it’s possible that Murray hoped to enhance the value of this work by his statement. Sir Galahad at the Shrine (1855-7, Tate Gallery 1984, no.217) was signed by both Siddal and D.G. Rossetti so Murray may have also confused the two works accidently (Marsh and Nunn 117).

Works Cited

Marsh, Jan, and Pamela Gerrish Nunn. “Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists”. London, Thames and Hudson: 1997. Print.

“Pre-Raphaelites: The Poetry of Drawing”. The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group. Web. 6 Mar. 2013.

Prettejohn, Elizabeth. The Cambridge Companion to the Pre-Raphaelites. New York, Cambridge University Press: 2012. Print.

“William Morris, Jane Burden”. Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May. 25 Mar. 2010. Web. 6 Mar. 2013.

Eleanor Elizabeth Siddal (Siddal Post #6)

Eleanor Elizabeth Siddal (Siddal Post #7)

Lovers Listening to Music by Elizabeth Siddal was completed in 1854. Like Pippa Passes it is signed and dated “E.E.S. 54” and is of a similar size and finish to form a pair (Marsh and Nunn 115).

W.M. Rossetti described it as “Two lovers listening to the music of two dark Malay-looking women”. It is unknown where Siddal’s inspiration came from for this illustration, but it likely came from a literary source (Marsh and Nunn 115).

It is feasible that she illustrated a few lines of her poetry; “Love kept my heart in a song of joy / My pulses quivered to the tune; / The coldest blasts of winter blew / Upon it like sweet airs in June.” (Marsh and Nunn 115).

Like Pippa Passing the female figure seems to be a self-portrait. W.M. Rossetti suggested that the male figure was his brother, which is very likely as he worked in Siddal’s studio. The part I love the best is a sketch by Siddal from 1853 where he sits for her (Marsh and Nunn 115). Women artists in the past didn’t get much opportunity to represent men, unless they were chaperoned so “nothing” could happen (mostly actions of a sexual nature).  It is unclear if he sat for her without a chaperone; if he did, that would be a scandalous action to anyone who knew about it!

The child represents Love and is reminiscent of the angel in Rossetti’s Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1849, Tate Gallery). The background is thought to be inspired from the Hastings area as she resided there in spring 1854 (Marsh and Nunn 115).

In March of 1855, Siddal accidentally sells Lovers Listening to Music (which was originally purchased by William Allingham), to John Ruskin who bought all of her existing drawings at once (Chapman and Meacock 90). The replicate she produced for Allingham is (or was) on loan to Wightwick Manor (Marsh and Nunn 115).

For not having any formal art education before creating Pippa Passing and Two Lovers Listening to Music shows potential. I’ve said it before, but if only she had had the opportunity to live a full live, I think she would have produced some phenomenal work! She did attended a ladies art class at Sheffield Art School in 1857. After this she embarked on her artistic career with little to no formal instruction. However, she was a part of D.G. Rossetti’s life, so she received knowledge (and probably inspiration) this way (Prettejohn, 189).

Without this connection to Rossetti, I doubt we would know as much as we do today because women artists were not taken seriously.  Going way back to the Renaissance, if a woman artist produced a great work it would often be accredited to a male artist, or people would think she paid a man to paint it and put her name on it.  I’m still in the midsts of learning about Pre-Raphaelite art, but the men who consisted of the movement, seemed to be ahead of their time in how they encouraged women artists.

I personally like Pippa Passing better than Two Lovers Listening to Music for two reasons.  The first is that I feel Pippa Passing has smoother hatching to the clothing, giving it a cleaner appearance.  I also love how the viewer must know about the “fallen” woman to fully appreciate this work.  Even though I don’t like the rougher texture to the shading in Two Lovers Listening to Music, I think it does fit with the countryside setting that gives it more of a rustic atmosphere.

Works Cited

Marsh, Jan, and Pamela Gerrish Nunn. “Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists”. London, Thames and Hudson: 1997. Print.

Chapman, Alison, and Joanna Meacock. A Rossetti Family Chronology. Great Britian, Palgrave Macmillan: 2007. Print.

Prettejohn, Elizabeth. The Cambridge Companion to the Pre-Raphaelites. New York, Cambridge University Press: 2012. Print.