30 Days of Blogging Honesty – Day 8

Day 08 — If I could afford it, the piece of famous artwork you would find in my home is…

Ophelia, by John Millais, 1851-1852

Millais’s image of the tragic death of Ophelia, as she falls into the stream and drowns, is one of the best-known illustrations from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.I love this painting. The green lush vegetation, booming with life, opposed to the death girl who is in the center of the picture. One last breath trapped on her red lips, still holding the flowers she had plucked which now are floating on the murky water. Her hair has come undone and is floating next to her head, much more like a mermaid’s hair. The plants offer her a place to hide, and in time, will cover her completely. The green is expanding in form of algae from the earth to where she sits, peacefully floating.

She has her palms facing up, a body language sign which indicates abandon, release, the inability to hide anything anymore. Her eyes are slightly open as she was expecting to see one more thing before death takes her over and her still flushed face indicates the warmth of the summer air and makes us think that this scene has only now happened. We are the first ones to enter these grounds and find her like this.
Ophelia's Death - Millais

From Tate Gallery Website:

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.

The following flowers and foliage are mentioned in Act IV, Scene VII (all images on this page © Tate, London 2003)

crow flowers
Crow flowers in the foreground look similar to buttercups and symbolise ingratitude or childishness
weeping willow
The weeping willow tree leaning over Ophelia is a symbol of forsaken love.
nettles
The nettles that are growing around the willow’s branches represent pain.
daisies
The daisies floating near her right hand represent innocence. Ophelia also mentions ‘There’s a daisy’ in act 4, scene 5.
purple loosestrife
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.
pink roses by her cheek pink roses by her dress white field roses
The pink roses that float by her cheek (above left) and her dress (above middle) and the white field roses growing on the river bank (above right), 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.

violets 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.
The following flowers were added to the scene by Millais:
Meadowsweet
The Meadowsweet flowers to the left of the purple loosestrife may signify the futility (the lack of purpose or uselessness) of her death.
forget-me-nots
The pale blue forget-me-nots on the river bank below the purple loosestrife and in the immediate foreground, carry their meaning in their name.
pansies
The pansies that float on the dress in the centre, refer to Act IV, Scene V where Ophelia gathers flowers in the field (‘that’s for thoughts’). They represent thought and they can also mean love in vain (the name comes from French, penses).
pheasant's eye
Ophelia’s sorrow is symbolised by the pheasant’s eye floating near the pansies (similar to the poppy) …
fritillary
…and the fritillary floating between the dress and the water’s edge in the bottom right hand corner.
poppy
The vivid red poppy with its black seeds represents sleep and death.
daffodils Millais originally included some daffodils in the painting not observed in Ewell but later bought from Covent Garden in London as he felt the painting needed more yellow. But his friend and poet, Tennyson, suggested that they were not appropriate as they symbolised false hope. Perhaps they are primroses? There is a reference to primroses in Act 1, Scene 3, when Ophelia speaks to Laertes:
Ophelia But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;
Whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.

There are similar phrases in Macbeth Act 2, Scene 3, ‘the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire’ and All’s Well That Ends Well Act IV, Scene 5, ‘the flowery way that leads to the broad gate and the great fire’.

Other symbols

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.
skull
The robin in the branches of the willow tree may refer to the line ‘For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy’, which she sings as she loses her mind in Act 1V, Scene V. This may be a reference to the fictional character Robin Hood, or as birds are also symbolic of the spirit, it could suggest that as she floats down the river, her spirit flies away. Rebecca Virag, Interpretation Assistant in the Interpretation and Education department, Tate Britain writes: robin

For the robin, I am tempted to suggest that Millais chose it specifically for its red breast. Red is traditionally the colour of martyrdom (deriving from the Catholic church), bearing connotations of spilled blood and thus death. These associations are made more dramatic because it is difficult to spot the bird in the undergrowth, save for its red breast which provides a startling colour note of scarlet amidst all the brown. In the summer, robins, male and female, are fighting for territory and finding mates. Perhaps Millais’s use of the lone robin is a reference to Ophelia’s abandonment by Hamlet, which leads to her death?

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4 Comments

    1. For some reason I really love paintings where the subject has given in/given up. It’s wonderful to see. I could spend days in the National Portraits Gallery in London

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