John Everett Millais and the Pre-Raphaelite Ophelia

Ophelia was the tragic heroine in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet and a popular subject 19th in century painting.  Typically Ophelia is shown sitting by the brook where she drowned wearing a long white dress.  Ophelia had gone mad after her potential husband, King Hamlet of Denmark, killed her beloved father Polonius.  In the play it is unknown whether she accidentally fell in the brook or purposely drowned herself.
Ophelia, John Everett Millais, 1852, Tate Britain

In the 1852 version by John Everett Millais she has already died. Millais was one of the founding members of the short lived but influential group of 19th century painters known as the “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood” which also included Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt.  The group was revolutionary in its time (it was founded in 1848) as they always painted each exact detail from life and nature, unlike many painters they did not seek to idealize their subjects.  The group sought inspiration from Medieval and early Renaissance sources and emulated those artists up until the time of Raphael (around 1520). 

One reason that Ophelia was a popular theme is that it fit in with the aims of the group and-

"embodied the Brotherhood's initial aims in their keen observation of the natural world and depiction of subjects that lead the viewer to contemplate moral issues of justice, piety, familial relationships, and the struggle of purity against corruption."**

The Pre-Raphaelites have always intrigued me, I admire their work but their personal lives were even more interesting; the lives of the artists, their families, models and patrons are woven together and then unfold like an epic soap opera.  Part of this story can be told in one of the most impressive paintings, Ophelia.

Millais painstakingly made studies of all the components of the painting before pulling them together into one work.  He spent hours sketching and painting outdoors to capture each detail of the plants, trees and water.  Millais worked on this painting for nearly a year and for Ophelia he used a professional model named Elizabeth “Lizzie” Siddal who was a frequent muse of the Pre-Raphaelites. 
Ophelia, (detail) John Everett Millais, 1852, Tate Britain

Millais had Siddal pose in a tub of water to correctly capture how her hair and dress would have floated.  Each time she posed he kept the tub of water warm with many oil lamps, and on one instance failed to notice when they went out as he was so immersed in his painting.  She didn’t tell him when the water cooled so as not to break her pose but ended up getting pneumonia.  Her father was enraged to hear of this but Millais paid for a doctor.  Siddal continued to model for the group, eventually marrying Rossetti in 1860.

This painting was critically acclaimed but earlier Pre-Raphaelite paintings were ridiculed.  The prominent British art critic, art historian and author, John Ruskin was among those that praised the naturalism of the group from the start.  The same naturalism was used in a portrait of Ruskin also painted by Millais (below).  Millais was invited along on the family's vacation in Scotland so that he could paint Ruskin's full length portrait in the Pre-Raphaelite manner.  Millais spent hours outside sketching and painting the rocks and the water, and when they returned to London he had Ruskin continue his pose by placing him at the top of a staircase.

However one strange twist in the Pre-Raphaelite story took place on the very trip to Scotland where this portrait was painted.  The artist Millais noticed that the relationship between Ruskin and his wife seemed tense and strained.  At that time Ruskin’s young wife Euphemia “Effie” Ruskin, who had been married to him for over 5 years confided in Millais that her marriage had never been consummated.  She and Millais had become good friends over the years and she even modeled for him on occasion.  Her disclosure led to their eventual annulment in 1854 and in 1855 she married Millais.
John Ruskin, John Everett Millais, 1853-54, Private collection
Especially in Victorian England this caused a huge scandal and also a great deal of embarrassment to all parties.  Ruskin was looked on with pity, Effie was looked at as an unfaithful spouse and Millais was seen as breaking up a marriage.  However it does seem that they were both relieved to get an annulment, Effie and John Everett Millais went on to have a long happy marriage with eight children.  Ruskin did not remarry but after this incident he continued to have a successful and influential career as a writer and art critic.  

Ruskin's friendship with another of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, led to his great interest in the work of Rossetti’s fiancé, who was Lizzie Siddal (the model for Ophelia).  Siddal had been working in a millinery shop when a friend of the Pre-Raphaelites met her and asked her to model.  After working as an artist's model for a few years Siddal had started to become interested in pursuing art.  After she became engaged to Rossetti, he taught and encouraged her and she made dozens of paintings.  Ruskin was so impressed with her work that he bought all of it and paid for her expenses for the next few years.  Ruskin’s patronage allowed her to stop modeling and support herself so that she would be free to continue to paint full time.
Beata Beatrix, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1864-1870, Tate Britain

Ruskin also paid for her to travel to Paris and then to the south of France to benefit her health as she was often ill.  Her doctor had prescribed the very addictive and potentially fatal tonic of laudanum, which was a narcotic drug.  After Siddal and Rossetti married in 1860 she quickly became pregnant.  However she didn’t realize how dangerous it was to take laudanum throughout the pregnancy.  

This had extremely tragic results, she gave birth to a still born child and several months later she was found dead in their home due to a laudanum overdose in 1862.  In a heartbreaking case of life imitating art, (as the heroine Ophelia that she is so often associated with) it is unknown whether she accidentally overdosed on the drug or purposely killed herself due to her grief. Rossetti was beside himself with anguish and painted this memorial to his wife Lizzie, Beata Beatrix, a title which referenced Beatrice Portinari, the beloved of the Renaissance poet after whom he was named, Dante Alighieri. 
Further reading:
Hawksley, Lucinda. Lizzie Siddal: Face of the Pre-Raphaelites. New York: Walker & Co., 2004.
Marsh, Jan. Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood. London: The Cromwell Press, 1985.

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