Saturday, April 26, 2008

Ophelia's Last Dance (Revisited)

John Everett Millais (1829-1896) - Ophelia, 1851-2

'In this painting Millais renounced accepted conventions for Shakespearean tragedy by attempting a literal realisation of Gertrude's speech in Hamlet in which the queen reports the suicide of Ophelia. Widely regarded as one of the "most marvellously and completely accurate and elaborate studies of nature ever made by the hand of man", Ophelia has come to epitomise Pre-Raphaelite vision. Between July and November 1851 Millais and Hunt worked together at Ewell near Kingston in Surrey painting landscape backgrounds for their respective pictures Ophelia and The Hireling Shepherd. It was only upon his return to London in December that Millais introduced the figure of Ophelia thus significantly reversing the standard academic procedure of subordinating background elements to the main human drama. Millais's method differed in another respect in that, apart from a few preliminary studies, he evolved the composition on the canvas itself, painting a small section at a time direct from the motif. This decision relates partly to the artist's adoption of a white ground upon which he painted in wet for the plants which further accounts for the extraordinary luminosity of the colour, particularly the verdant green, a compound of chrome yellow and Prussian blue.

It has been estimated that at Ewell Millais and Hunt between them expended approximately fifteen hundred hours painting landscapes, far more time than they gave to the figures themselves, which also explains why Ophelia appears subsumed by the claustrophobic luxuriance of the vegetation that surrounds her. This plein air approach inevitably involved considerable perseverance and, as Millais relayed in his correspondence with Mrs Thomas Combe, he not only had to contend with accusations of trespassing, but also with the wind, the threat of a bull, the annoyance of flies and two swans who persisted in watching him from the very spot he wished to paint. By enduring such physical and mental discomforts in order to abide by the Pre-Raphaelite principle of scrupulous observation, Millais could aptly be classed as a naturalist of both field and closet varieties. Indeed analogies have been drawn between the disposition of specimens within the frame and the viewing practices of naturalists, especially their practice of exhibiting plants in cabinets or Wardian cases: "the moss and flowers and vegetable details, are positively mirrored as in a glass. The waterlily is the botanical study of a Linnaeus", declared the Atheneum; while the painter's son recalled that perhaps the greatest compliment ever paid to Ophelia was when "a certain professor of Botany, being unable to take his class into the country and lecture from the objects before him, took them to the Guildhall, where this work was being exhibited, and discoursed to them upon the flowers and plants before them, which were, he said, as instructive as nature herself".

Millais's knowledge of plants developed as he worked on the composition and was encouraged by certain friends, among them Mrs Combe, and Tennyson who advised Millais that the daffodils included were inconsistent with the summer flowers elsewhere in the painting, causing the artist to delete them. Although its inordinate concentration on natural detail could be seen as an extension of the botanical particularities in Millais's Ferdinand Lured by Ariel. Ophelia is more radical in its near-sightedness, denying spatial recession and any suggestion of environment or atmosphere. It is the individuality of each specimen that matters rather than specificity of site, so that compared with traditional landscape conventions Ophelia has appeared paradoxically "unnatural" to some. P.G. Hamerton, for example, noting that the leaves looked artificial as if "cut out of sheet metal painted green". Moreover, in maximising the clarity of each object, light and shaded areas are accorded equal importance, resulting in an all-over two-dimensionality that negates any sense of hierarchical organisation. By according the plants equal status with the protagonist, Millais was exposing himself to accusations of bathos and mere imitation; Richard Redgrave for one criticised the work for its "laborious idleness" implying that no thought or invention had gone into the composition. Indeed the sheer sentience and abundance of detail virtually neutralises any feeling of tragedy.

It is precisely Millas's awareness of the fragility and transience of existence that lends Ophelia its poignancy, a quality imparted through both a naturalness and an unnaturalness of vision. More recently the writer Carol Christ has discussed Ophelia in terms of its "morbid intensity of vision", and ultimately it is the equalising but scattered focus that creates the disturbing sense of decomposition which provides such an appropriate visual equivalent for the morbidity of the subject.'

A. Smith (in Pre-Raphealite Vision: Truth to Nature, 2004)