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Thinking Art: Ophelia by John Everett Millais + Ophelia Inspired Outfit

In a world of stuffed sheep and bright polka dots, Fine Art has almost become a lost art. In this series of articles my mission is to get you, yes you, passionate about nineteenth century art. At first you may be thinking of a time of darkness, bonnets and the industrial revolution. You’d be right to think that, but beneath the surface lies a world of scandalous love affairs, sensual artists and extravagant parties. This underbelly of the 1800’s may have been looked down upon by high society, but it certainly shouldn’t be by us. In this first exploration I have chosen the painting Ophelia by John Everett Millais. It is merely an introduction, so dip your modern toes into a pool of beauty, nature and excitement.
Ophelia by John Everett Millais
In London, outside the Tate Modern you will find John Everett Millais, all be it in bronze. Inside the Tate Britain you will usually find ‘Ophelia’; a painting that has marvelled many for decades. It was in 1848 that John Everett Millais sat round a table with his friends and worked out the ‘rules’ of their latest infatuation; themselves. From this meeting the ‘Justice League’ of their time was created; The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. At first this modest trio decided that the ‘toffs’ at the Royal Academy were merely churning out copy-cat artists. Sound familiar? For the brotherhood all mystique and romance had disappeared from main-stream art. Officially the brotherhood consisted of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais. It appears that artist’s names have also shrunk with time. Franny Moyle wrote in her book ‘Desperate Romantics’ that one of the values that The Royal Academy upheld was that ‘nature should be improved on rather than copied.’ The PRB didn’t agree with this dogma, nor did they agree with the idea of copying nature. John Ruskin almost said it perfectly when he declared that, ‘go to nature in all singleness of heart and walk with her laboriously and trustingly – rejecting nothing, selecting nothing; believing all things to be right and good, and rejoicing always in the truth’. This statement may have had rather spiritual undertones but the route of the statement remains the same. I think that for the PRB art should be new and at represent nature, inspired the observing eye to want to interact with the paintings journey. Even in their intentions romanticism was apparent.
On with the painting Ophelia. Of course we know of this ‘Ophelia’ character from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death

I think it is important to keep the writings of Shakespeare in mind when looking at this painting. Millais has totally dipped his brushes in nature to create this work. As did Shakespeare with his pen when he wrote Hamlet. The matter of death and suicide is something that many troubled minds think about. It is a state of mind that is foreign to some, yet so natural to others. It is undeniable that the expression on Ophelia’s face mirrors the writing in Hamlet.
Millais completely took Ruskin’s ideals and utilised them as did the other PRB. He would immerse himself in the landscape to which the painting is set. Every detail was as admired upon in the 1800’s as it is today. At a later date Millais painted in the figure. The model was Elizabeth Siddall. It would take a whole book to completely explain the sordid yet exciting world of Miss Siddall. We will explore more of her life in future posts. Her modelling for this painting came at a sacrifice. Millais’ eye for detail became a hindrance for Siddall’s health. She was asked to lie in a bath of water for hours. The water was heated by lamps, once the lamps had burnt out Elizabeth caught a deadly cold. Siddall did not model for Millais again.

Ophelia promotes Ruskin’s naturalist ideals. The flowers and shrubbery are meticulous in detail. It is beautiful. It is humbling to see that such beauty contains a sorrowful symbolism. In a scene where Hamlet states that Ophelia’s journey will end in death, he presents her with a poppy. Amongst the water-drenched flowers, Millais has painted a poppy. Death and other negative connotations surround the beautiful and youthful figure. Some of the flowers represent love, pain and innocence.

Like the PRB movement Ophelia broke with previous classic portrayals. Many other depictions usually illustrate Ophelia as alive and on the water’s edge. Again Millais is completely utilising a truth to nature. Presenting the observer with death, a certain and true aspect of everyone’s lives.
Ophelia by Arthur Hughes
 It’s hard to say what is beautiful in art. It’s hard to say what’s beautiful in life. One thing we all find a comfort in is being presented with the fact that we all share in certain truths. Death, life and nature. All three exist within our lives in their own ways. Millais’ painting represents them at their fullest. They are simple on the surface facts that can make us feel uncomfortable yet humbled. It is an incredible thing that a 2D depiction from 1852 can have such a profound and lasting effect on the complex and troubled minds of a 21st century society.
I really hope you enjoyed this different post. Everynow and then I like to add a little difference to my blog. As a teenager I always appreciated art and found it fascinating, I never thought that I would be in love with art like I am now. I wouldn't change it for the world. I know it isn't for everyone, but I always think it's interesting to see how other people think about things.
I've also put a little Ophelia inspired outfit together, I can never resist a little everyday cosplay can I? Till next time.

Lace Placement Maxi Dress - Topshop - £65.00
Statement Flower headband - Topshop - £60.00 (*I know it is extrememly expensive, I would never pay that much for a headband but it is so beautiful! There are cheaper options available at Topshop!)
Sandals - Newlook - £5.00 (*Sale price)

xxx

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