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 http://www2.tate.org.uk/ophelia/
John Everett Millais. Ophelia. 1852. Oil on canvas. 762 x 1118 mm. Tate Brtitain, London. Art, Archaeology and Architecture (Erich Lessing Culture and Fine Arts Archives).
Siddal also modeled for Millais’s Ophelia. After posing as Ophelia in a basin of tepid water during the chilly winter months, her health deteriorated, and illness plagued her for the rest of her short life (Elizabeth).
In this painting Siddal is portrayed in death, yet she is still beautiful. The viewer is immediately drawn to her face as her porcelain skin contrasts with the dark water that flows around her form. If her eyes were shut (and we didn’t see the rest of her body), the expression on her face gives off the appearance that she is peacefully sleeping.
Millais has kept Siddal’s familiar red hair, however it is toned down in this painting. I believe he wanted the emphasis to be on her deathly pale skin. By blending her hair into the shadows of the water, it also adds a touch of soberness and reinforces the reality that she is no longer alive. Continuing on this note, her dress is also very pale, and the only color comes from what still has life, which are the plants.
After learning more about Siddal and her early death, this painting is fitting for her actual life. There is a beauty to Ophelia and the viewer feels sadness that her life was cut short, paralleling the abrupt death of Siddal, who I believe had much art and poetry left to produce. If anyone else has anything to add, please feel free to do so! I would love to get individual reactions and extra knowledge from my readers!
“Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal (1834-1862)”. The Victorian Web. 16 Sep. 2006. Web. 4 Mar. 2013. http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/siddal/index.html
“Rosetti’s Other Woman: The Silent Contribution of Models and Muses.” Blue-Stocking. Web. 5 Mar. 2013. http://blue-stocking.org.uk/2011/03/01/rosetti’s-other-woman-the-silent-contribution-of-models-and-muses/