The twins are particularly moved by the story of Lizzie Siddal, the drowned Ophelia in Millais’ painting: Insufficiently educated to become a governess or teacher, too talented and intelligent to settle for factory work or shop assistant, she built a career as a model for the Pre-Raphaelites. Rossetti fell in love with her, but the marriage that would give her a social existence was repeatedly put off. To make her less lower class, to give her the opportunity to cultivate herself, Rossetti wanted her to give up modelling, or rather to pose only for him; the sole alternative to marriage would then become impoverished spinsterhood. Lizzie did give up modelling, seeking to elevate herself in society, but not before posing for Millais: Stretched out in a bathtub with oil lamps underneath to heat the water, she posed as the drowned Ophelia. The last session lasted five hours, the oil ran out in the lamps; Lizzie was chilled to the bone, but did not complain: Her capacity to give herself up completely is what makes the painting so convincing. Finally married to Rossetti, she became pregnant; the child, however, died in her womb. Lizzie then took an overdose of opium and alcohol and killed herself.
The cat jumps off the bed; under the table, it rubs itself on my legs. Anna, her back against the headboard, draws up her legs and hugs her knees.
̶ Snúlli likes you, Sprague. It’s rare she’s affectionate with anyone but me.
She smiles into my eyes: Her gaze is disquieting, there’s an aware sexuality in her charm. I open the box: In one photo after another, in subdued Kodachrome colours, Anna and Gudrun take turns to play the drowned Ophelia: Now submerged in a stream, flower-strewn hair and long white dress flowing in the grassy current, now floating in reedy water, eyes and hands open to heaven, they perform variations on the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of femininity. As I study the images, Anna studies her face in a hand mirror.
̶ They’re really lovely, Anna.
̶ Do you like them?
She takes off her cardigan.
̶̶ Yes, very much.
With consummate skill she’s captured all the tropes of the romantic myth: still water as a call from the deep, reality yielding to dream, death as sleep.
̶̶ You’ve mastered light on water, Anna.
̶ You mean I know how to use a polarizing filter.
̶ And the flowers are very well arranged.
̶ Flowers! Snúlli, come!
The cat jumps onto the bed; Anna stretches out her legs and places the animal in her lap. So this is how you manage the ambiguities of adolescence, this is how you cope with its contradictions: Stroking the cat in your lap while Ophelia preserves your innocence, her death arresting you in childhood. Yes, you’ve staged things beautifully; you’ve realized your fantasy of a pure sexuality, a sexuality without the sex: The dead Ophelia, your second twin, never having become a woman, saves you from the violence of becoming one. But your photos are out of date, they don’t fool me: I know that though you be fifteen, you are impatient for deflowering— I can tell by how you blossom in my presence.
If ‘Truth to Nature’ has become the motto of Pre-Raphaelitism, Millais’ Ophelia is considered by many to be its paradigm. The subject is taken from Act IV of Hamlet, when Queen Gertrude announces Ophelia’s death–drowned in ‘the glassy stream’–which happens offstage. Ophelia has been driven to madness after the murder of her father by her lover Hamlet, who has also cruelly spurned her. Millais spent up to eleven hours a day, during July to October 1851, painting at the Hogsmill River, near Ewell in Surrey. There he observed closely the forms and condition of the water, trees and plants. For example, the reeds on the left are fresh, damaged or dead and, at their base, blades of floating grass are caught, denoting the gentle flow of the stream. The composition thus combines the particularities of a rural location and Shakespeare’s text. The flowers are those that were growing on the river bank and those described by Gertrude or mentioned previously by Ophelia and her brother Laertes. Others were added for their symbolic value. The poppy near Ophelia’s right hand symbolises both sleep and death, often jointly referenced in Hamlet, as demonstrated by some of its most famous lines, ‘To die, to sleep, / To sleep, perchance to dream’.
From the Romantic period onwards, Hamlet was thought by many to be the greatest of Shakespeare’s sublime dramas. Thus depicting a scene from Hamlet was not unusual. Showing Ophelia about to drown, however, was. Indeed, it is remarkable how far Millais departed from conventional wisdom in his interpretation. Throughout the nineteenth century Ophelia was a favoured literary figure and preferred Shakespearean heroine for British artists. Richard Redgrave had exhibited a version of Ophelia seated at a river bank in 1842; in 1852, Arthur Hughes, a member of the growing Pre-Raphaelite circle, exhibited a painting showing the same moment. There was a tendency at this time to depict actual Shakespearean productions or representations that were suggestive of the theatre. Maclise’s Play Scene from Hamlet, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1842, retains the atmosphere of the play within a play and emphasises the Stürm and Drang of the moment with overblown theatrical gesturing and expressions.
The supernatural/magical plays, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, encouraged the conflation of Shakespearean subjects with the popular fairy subject-paintings, for example, Joseph Paton’s Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania. Millais’s Ferdinand and Ariel, inspired by The Tempest, displays both fantasy and artificiality, while paradoxically demonstrating Pre-Raphaelite formal principles and being set in the open air. Similarly Hughes emphasized the allusions made in Shakespeare’s text to Ophelia as a supernatural creature (more specifically a mermaid) as she sinks to her death, characterizing her in his painting as a pale, nymph-like creature, perched in the midst of an eerie, unnatural landscape. Uniquely in nineteenth-century art, Eugène Delacroix’s three versions of Ophelia at the stream (1838, 1843 and 1853), show her falling awkwardly into the water. Unlike the interpretations by Redgrave and Hughes, in which she is presented as a wronged innocent, Delacroix emphasizes that Ophelia has been seduced and abandoned by Hamlet, her figure wrapped in clothing reminiscent of bedsheets. Such an emphasis is wholly in keeping with Shakespeare’s original text, but was often edited out of Victorian theatrical productions and even published texts.
In a broader context, madness in young women caused by betrayal in love was a common literary, theatrical and operatic theme in the nineteenth century. Millais frequently attended the opera. He certainly saw Vincenzo Bellini’s I Puritani and perhaps Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Both include so-called ‘mad scenes’.
In Millais’ interpretation, specific theatrical associations are expunged. Instead Ophelia exudes an intensified reality, which comes from a refusal to edit and idealise. Millais steers his subject away from the fantastical and prettified or, indeed, the awkward angularity and more lurid colouring of his earliest paintings, to present Ophelia’s death to the viewer as an actual event. The specificity of the figure—a real, living woman—is integral to this impression. Millais’s oft-noted obedience to Shakespeare’s text does not diminish the temporal ambiguity of this event. We know it is Ophelia, but what exactly anchors her to a specific period of history? This ambiguity may derive from a specific collaboration between Millais and Hunt while painting together in Ewell. Hunt was executing the landscape for The Hireling Shepherd in 1851-2, which is set in the contemporary world. The completed painting shows a shepherd attempting to seduce a shepherdess, her feet dangling over the edge of a stream. A single sheep, straying to the right, presages her fate.
Ophelia’s death had contemporary resonance given that drowning was by this time associated with ‘the fallen woman’ who, having sexually transgressed, is abandoned and commits suicide. The third scene of Augustus Egg’s trilogy Past and Present, exhibited in 1858, suggests as much, with the abandoned wife seated under the arch of a bridge by the Thames, clutching her illegitimate child.
G.F. Watts’ Found Drowned (1848-50) is unusually direct in portraying the body of a young woman lying prostrate under the arch of a bridge, a painting Millais may have known.
Later, in 1858, Millais executed an illustration to Thomas Hood’s poem The Bridge of Sighs, showing a young woman contemplating death on the Thames foreshore. The poem describes the finding of a drowned woman, and calls on the reader to view her fate with compassion rather than contempt.
… and Rossetti’s Found—Millais filtered such social commentary in his paintings through a literary source or attempted to provoke sympathy via a gently poignant interpretation (as can be seen in The Blind Girl, which engages with the subject of poverty and vagrancy).
In this context, Ophelia can be viewed as the last in a trilogy of paintings, executed between 1850 and 1852, involving a single female figure. The Bridesmaid (1851) shows a young woman passing a piece of wedding cake through a ring, legend stating that, if she does so nine times, she will experience a vision of her future lover. Although the orange blossom at her breast denotes chastity, the glazed eyes and parted lips denote desire, the image’s sensuousness accentuated by the veil of luxuriant hair, loosened about her shoulders.
Painted at approximately the same time, Mariana was inspired by Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem of the same title, first published in 1830. The work was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1851, with the following lines from Tennyson’s poem printed in the catalogue:
She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said. ‘I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!’
The character of Mariana originates from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. She has been in exile for five years, waiting for her fiancé Angelo’s return. As the play proceeds she is persuaded to participate in a ruse, posing in the dead of night as the virginal Isabella, whom Angelo desires. Having had sex with Mariana, Angelo is forced to agree to marriage at the close of the play. Thus Mariana’s role is ambiguous and ultimately tragic. Millais and Tennyson do not make direct reference to her subsequent fate, the focus of the poem and painting being the relentless passage of time, Angelo’s neglect of Mariana and her suicidal thoughts. In the poem these are signified by the repetition at the end of each stanza of the lines quoted above, and in the painting the stretching pose of Mariana—which, in accentuating her breasts and buttocks can be read as sexual yearning—the scattered leaves on the floor and the near-completed tapestry on the table.
But Millais’s Mariana cannot be described as an illustration of Tennyson’s poem in the strictest sense of the word, but rather an imaginative evocation. Only the mouse (bottom right) is mentioned in the text. In fact the tapestry on which Mariana has been labouring for so long is suggestive of Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, first published in 1833 and revised in 1842, in which the eponymous Lady ‘weaves by night and day/A magic web with colours gay’. Her moment of revelation comes—‘I am half-sick of shadows’—on seeing ‘two young lovers, lately wed’. Mariana and The Lady of Shalott, shut away in their respective ‘prisons’, are observers of rather than participators in love and life.
The Bridesmaid, Mariana and Ophelia thus form a sequence…
John Everett Millais, The Bridesmaid, 1851 (detail)
… from the hopeful yearning of an adolescent…
John Everett Millais, Mariana, 1851 (detail)
… and the loneliness and sexual frustration of a grown woman…
John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52 (detail)
… to the despair and suicide of a spurned lover.
All the women are lost in thought or madness. The individuality and realism of their faces underline that they are portraits of contemporary women, which makes the temporal setting of Mariana and Ophelia ambiguous.
John Everett Millais
Tamara de Lempicka
Nicolas de Staël
Hans Holbein, Younger
Vincent Van Gogh
Caspar David Friedrich
Leda and the Swan