The Pre-Raphaelites were a group of artists, founded in London in 1848. Their paintings were intensely detailed, referencing themes of religion, love, death, and desire. Above all, they were concerned with naturalism: the detailed study of nature, with strict adherence to realism.
This bold wave of artistic expression mightn’t seem particularly risqué by today’s standards – but in their day, the Pre-Raphaelites were pioneers. Drawing inspiration from the great love stories of history and literature, they depicted lush landscapes, romantic stories, and devastating tragedies, embedded with hidden symbolism.
Ophelia by John Everett Millais (1851–2) is one of the most famous Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia is a tragic character, driven mad when her father, Polonius, is murdered by her lover, Hamlet. Ophelia appears throughout the play, spiralling deeper and deeper into grief and madness. Her words often seem jumbled and nonsensical, but much like the hidden details in Millais’ painting, they hold clues about her tragic circumstances and her eventual fate.
Millais captures in great detail Ophelia’s final moments. She is said to have fallen into the river while picking flowers, where she slowly drowns, singing softly to herself. In Millais’ painting, she floats calmly, as if surrendering to her fate. Around her neck is a delicate string of violets – another motif referenced in the play.
‘I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died,’ says Ophelia, as she mourns the death of her Father. Violets are a symbol of faithfulness, devotion and death in the young.
Flowers are a key motif for Ophelia throughout Shakespeare’s text. Her brother, Laertes, refers to his sister as a rose. In Millais’ painting, a single, soft pink rose floats delicately beside Ophelia, symbolising grace and innocence.
Other flowers, too, hold poignant meaning. In Victorian times, the ‘Language of Flowers’ was well understood; flowers had very specific connotations. Daisies represent innocence and refer to a specific scene in which Ophelia collects daisies, whilst the deep red pheasant’s eye – a bright, poppy-like flower with black centre, which seems so prominent in Millais’ composition, set against a backdrop of murky greens and browns –refers to sorrowful remembrance.
The wildflowers and plants growing on the riverbank hold deep meaning, too. The forget-me-nots in the foreground symbolise constancy, referring to Ophelia’s enduring love for her father. In the far right of the painting, the tangled, weed-like spiky teasel symbolises misanthropy. Millais’ painstaking depiction of these prickly weeds refers to a general dislike, distrust or contempt of human nature! In Hamlet, Shakespeare describes a world like this, in which every character has a dark side, and ultimately, no one can be trusted.
Love & Desire: Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces from the Tate
December 14th, 2018 to April 28th, 2019
National Gallery of Australia
Parkes Pl E, Parkes
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory
For more information and tickets, click here.