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Temporality In John Millais' Ophelia

Post Graduate (Master of Arts) in English Literature and Philosophy

History of the Painting

The painting titled "Ophelia" was painted by Sir John Everett Millais sometime between 1851 and 1852. He was one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood along with William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rosetti. The group believed that mimesis or the imitation of nature is the central purpose of art. Hence, they sought a return to a "pre-raphaelian" age of art before the mannerist style of painting took over from Raphael and Michelangelo.

The painting "Ophelia" was completed in two stages. First, the background landscape was composed and then the figure of Ophelia was painted in the foreground.

Ophelia herself was modelled by Elizabeth Siddall, who was 19 years of age at the time of the painting. In order to portray the painting, Siddall had to float in a bathtub full of water to depict the drowning Ophelia. As the painting was done through winter, Millais had put oil lamps below the tub to keep the water warm. Once, the lamps went out and the water became icy cold. Millais was engrossed in his work and Siddall did not complain. As a result of her prolonged exposure to the cold water, she eventually became ill with severe pneumonia. Her father held Millais responsible for Siddall's predicament and had Millais cover the costs of her treatment under the threat of legal action.

A Temporal Analysis

The painting depicts the character Ophelia from Shakespeare's play Hamlet singing a lament as she drowns in a river. The pose and the upward gaze resembles the traditional depiction of martyrs and saints in classical Christian iconography.

The painting is wrought with a detailed depiction of flora from the English countryside. The flowers highlighted in the painting corresponded with the Victorian concept of the "language of flowers" where the depiction of a flower in art signified a specific meaning. In the painting, the dishevelled garland highlighting the red poppy flower denotes sleep or death. In this case, the poppy flower seems to communicate the symbolism of death to the viewer as this painting depicts Ophelia's final moments.

But, the most striking feature of the painting is the portrayal of the flow of time which might not be initially apparent to the viewer.

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The painting flows from right to left (from Ophelia's toe towards her head) as per the viewer's eyes. The hues of green on the right side of the painting (towards Ophelia's toe) are deeper and the flora on the right side seems greener and more "alive". Wildflowers, bushes and shrubs dominate the right side of the painting.

As the viewer's eye follows the movement from Ophelia's toe towards her head, the background flora on the left stands in stark contrast to the right. Greener hues give way to more muted shades of brown and grey. Broken branches and rougher edges of the flora juxtapose the more tender and milder geometry of the vegetation on the right side. The left side of the painting is more flooded compared to the right side suggestive of the lower ground on the left side. Hence, the stream depicted in the painting flows from right to the left, from the direction of Ophelia's toe towards the direction of her head.

The viewer can let his/her imagination trace the path of Ophelia as she flows with the stream towards the left side of the painting. We might assume that Millais portrays Ophelia on the verge of her death and she dies as her body drowns out of the frame on the left side of the painting. This concept of the flow of time from life towards death is wonderfully illustrated by Millais through the symbolism of the pastures and the flora of the English countryside.

The flora on the right side is more alive than those on the left (as mentioned earlier) and the broken branches on the left side symbolizes an impending catastrophe. The red poppy is the most overt symbol of death within the frame but this temporal framing of the subject matter moving from right to left, essentially moving toward death highlights the nuanced approach of Millais towards his art.

The symbolism of flower might be the accepted practice of conveying meaning through art back in the Victorian era, but the flow of time from life towards death depicted in the painting by contrasting the pastoral hues on right and left sides of the painting seems to be the more elemental and cerebral choice for symbolism in the painting, particularly for modern viewers who are not familiar with the antiquated Victorian concept of "language of flowers".

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Abhijit Chatterjee

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