Work in Progress: John Everett Millais ‘Ophelia’

John Everett Millais (1829–1896), Ophelia (detail) (1851-2), oil on canvas, 76.2 x 111.8 cm, Tate Britain, London. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

One of the best-known examples of Pre-Raphaelite art is John Everett Millais’ painting of Ophelia, one of the most brilliant works of the artist’s career, and completed when he was only twenty-three. Although painted painstakingly according to Pre-Raphaelite techniques, the Brotherhood’s brief existence had ended before Millais started work on it, and his style was maturing away from his earlier more characteristic paintings, such as Isabella (1848-49) and Christ in the House of His Parents (1849-50), which had caused the controversy which split the Brotherhood asunder.

John Everett Millais (1829–1896), Ophelia (1851-2), oil on canvas, 76.2 x 111.8 cm, Tate Britain, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Its origins are very Victorian. Millais was a child prodigy who met like-minded young men including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt and formed an artistic movement. They had no need of traditional workshops staffed by skilled craftsmen to provide their materials, as artists’ colourmen were only too happy to sell them prepared canvases, paint and brushes. Oil paint was even becoming available in convenient metal tubes using ‘modern’ pigments, although at that time their cost would have limited use. These artists chose their own motifs rather than depending on the whims of patrons, and exhibited their paintings at the Royal Academy and other exhibitions and galleries.

Themes based on literary references were extremely popular, and Shakespeare’s characters well known by all. Next weekend I will look in more detail at the evolution of paintings of the death of Ophelia, from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, in detail. Suffice it to say here that it was high on the list of themes at the time, and thoroughly visual.

One principle in Pre-Raphaelite painting was the desire for luminous colour, and in an effort to exploit the optical properties of the paint layer, the commonly-used early technical solution to this was to apply paint to brilliant white ground which was still wet. I will consider this technique in more detail later, but this demanded careful planning in order to reserve space for each passage. Another principle was to paint from nature as much as possible, so Millais had to separate the figure of Ophelia from the background in his planning.

Although Millais made several preliminary studies, only four appear to have survived: one for the figure is in the Pierpont Morgan Library, a more finished sketch is in Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, a study for the head is in Birmingham City Art Gallery, and an oil study for the head is currently unlocated, according to Townsend and others (see the reference, below).

John Everett Millais (1829–1896), Elizabeth Siddal – Study for Ophelia (1851-52), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In early June 1851, Millais ordered the canvas on its stretcher from Roberson, a popular and reputable artists’ colourman in London which has been trading since 1810 and continues to do so today. This was delivered already primed with three layers of oil ground, consisting of lead white oil paint with white extenders of chalk, barium sulphate and china clay. On top of this is a further layer of ground which contains a mixture of zinc white and lead white, applied after the canvas had been stretched, presumably before its delivery. This cost the artist 15 shillings, or £0.75!

Millais made quite extensive and partly scribbled drawings onto the ground before starting to paint the background en plein air in July. He chose a site in Surrey, on the bank of the Hogsmill River, between Ewell and Kingston, where the land is flat and the ground wet, even in summer. At that time of year, there are usually many biting flies or midges, and these troubled the artist during his eleven-hour working days. He apparently painted under an umbrella, and may have worn a ‘midge net’ to protect his face from being bitten.

During this phase, William Holman Hunt was painting close by. The pair had gone to prospect for suitable sites near Ewell in late June: Millais for Ophelia, Hunt for The Hireling Shepherd (1851-52), and both completed the landscape phase of their paintings by the end of October.

The Pre-Raphaelite principle of painting in front of the motif paralleled movements in France such as the Barbizon School and Impressionism, but with one major difference: Pre-Raphaelites painted in painstaking detail, demanding prolonged and protracted work outdoors, to the point where such detailed paintings became almost impractical.

One puzzle with this painting is its apparent lack of flies in the paint layer. If you have ever tried painting en plein air under constant fly attack, you will understand that midges and other flies are attracted by the odour of oil paint, and usually become embedded in wet paint in large numbers. Yet I haven’t seen any remarks made following close examination of Ophelia that there are the bodies of flies in the paint, nor the marks made by the artist trying to remove them from the wet paint.

Although Millais is claimed to have started work on the figure in late January 1852, by which time the landscape would have been dry to the touch, he didn’t purchase the dress worn in the finished painting until March.

Elizabeth Siddal (1829–1862), Self-portrait (1853-54), oil on canvas, diameter 22.8 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Millais’ model for the figure of Ophelia was Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Siddall (1829–1862), one of the Pre-Raphaelite women who tragically died only a decade later from an opium overdose, after Rossetti taught her to paint and married her. An experienced model for several artists of the day, this time she was challenged in her work. Apparently from late January until March, each day she lay in a bath of tepid water, heated from underneath by lamps. It is famously reported that one day the lamps failed, she became chilled, developed a cold, and had to receive medical attention. Her father threatened Millais with legal action to recover the costs of that medical aid. Her dress wasn’t purchased until March, though, when Millais paid £4 for it.

The Pre-Raphaelite predilection for painting onto (or into) a wet brilliant white ground was sometimes claimed to be the secret of their success in oils. One paint sample has shown that Millais may have used the technique in this painting, but Townsend and others don’t see any more general evidence here.

There’s a good case that light passing through translucent layers of paint will be reflected from a white ground underneath, but the Pre-Raphaelite requirement that paint be applied to the ground when it’s still wet is harder to justify. It’s more likely that the practice was based on the concept of giornate in fresco painting. Because most Pre-Raphaelite paintings were so slow to paint, to use this technique the artist has to apply fresh zinc white ground to just the area which they will be painting that day, much as the fresco painter applies plaster for each day’s work before they start painting that day.

Honoré Daumier (1808-1879), The Strongman (c 1865), oil on wood panel, 26.9 x 35 cm, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Microscopic paint cross-section by Elizabeth Steele at Courtesy of The Phillips Collection.

This paint section cut by Elizabeth Steele from a painting by Honoré Daumier shows the normal appearance of oil paint which has been applied to a thoroughly dry white ground: the ground, the thick layer of bright white in the lower part of the section, is clearly separated from the coloured upper paint layers. Painting into a wet white ground loses that separation, and may actually reduce reflection as a result.

Whether he did paint on a wet white ground, Millais laid down thin translucent layers of colour. His technique for flesh was different, and more similar to the multiple fine brushstrokes used when painting in egg tempera. This results in flesh which looks quite uneven when examined closely, but at normal viewing distances it has a thoroughly fleshy texture.

John Everett Millais (1829–1896), Ophelia (detail) (1851-2), oil on canvas, 76.2 x 111.8 cm, Tate Britain, London. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps the greatest challenge, more than the midges of summer or long tepid baths, were the flowers. The painting features elaborate references to the symbolic meaning of flowers, while being constrained to species which occurred in Surrey. These include: roses as a symbol of love; willow, nettle and daisy for forsaken love, suffering, and innocence; pansies for love in vain; violets for faithfulness, chastity, or a premature death; poppies for death; finally forget-me-nots for remembrance.

Many of these would have been in flower when Millais was painting outdoors in the summer, but those which adorn the figure of Ophelia would have presented a problem, as at that stage all the painting had there was the white space reserved for the figure. It’s not clear how Millais solved this. It is apparent, though, from the detail above that he superimposed zinc white to make the decoration in the dress sparkle.

When it had been exhibited at the Royal Academy later in 1852, Millais’ job was still not complete. To generate additional income, a print-maker then turned the oil painting into a print, an example of which is shown below.

John Everett Millais (1829–1896), Ophelia (Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 7) (1866), mezzotint, etching and stipple on chine collé by James Stephenson for Henry Graves & Company, 52.5 x 86.3 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Millais still wasn’t fully satisfied, and in 1873, over twenty years after it had been exhibited, he made some additions and alterations to some of its lush vegetation and the figure’s face.

John Everett Millais (1829–1896), Ophelia (1851-2), oil on canvas, 76.2 x 111.8 cm, Tate Britain, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Sometimes it may seem that nineteenth century and more modern painting lacks the craft tradition of earlier times. In the case of Millais’ Ophelia, that certainly isn’t true.


Joyce H Townsend, Jacqueline Ridge, Stephen Hackney (2004) Pre-Raphaelite Painting Techniques, Tate Gallery. ISBN 978 1 854 37498 1.