‘Ophelia’ (1851-52)
is the first Millais piece I remember seeing, and indeed the first work that piqued my interest in learning more about art as a whole. He delicately depicts the titular character, Ophelia, in her final moments, and the melancholy beauty of the scene deeply resonated with me. John Everett Millais was a child prodigy, part of the dramatic love triangle between John Ruskin and Effie Gray. Some of his work is available to see in our very own Ashmolean Museum, amongst many others, such as the Tate Britain, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Royal Academy of Arts, to name a few. He belonged to the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and as such a specific interest was put upon capturing the detail of the natural world, rebelling against the elitist view of Raphael’s art. There was also a deliberate movement away from the overtly political, with an emphatic focus placed upon beauty instead. However, with a stylistic development preferring realism in his later works, Millais cannot be confined to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood alone, despite being amongst its founding members.

Millais’ life and art intersect in fascinating ways throughout his career. My personal favourite example is ‘Waterfall’, or ‘Effie at Glenfinlas’ (1853), which depicts Effie, Ruskin’s wife (at the time), sitting by a small river. What sits beneath the paint, however, is something far more turbulent than merely the waterfall. Effie and Ruskin had a complicated relationship: it was a cold and distant marriage that was never consummated. During the painting of this piece, a romance blossomed between Millais and Effie which effectively rescued her from the loveless arrangement with Ruskin, and the personal connection between painter and subject is evident in the tentative detail of the artwork. Both the waterfall and the figure of Effie herself fight for the viewer’s attention, yet inevitably it is the vibrant red of her dress, and the captivating ambiguity of Effie’s expression, which always succeed in drawing my eye. Her face half in shadow, and more impressionistic than the detailed realism of the rest of the scene, she seems to occupy a different world, intruding upon yet simultaneously commanding the landscape.

Very often, Millais’ art is also inspired by literary works he has interacted with, such as ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ (1863), based on a Keats poem of the same name, where Effie (now his wife) is once again the subject. He perfectly captures the moment of Madeline being “Half-hidden, like a mermaid in sea-weed,” wherein the figure physically resembles a mermaid with her dress pooled around her feet. The rich textural detail of Madeline and the dress draws the eye in, the more impressionistic setting acting as a golden haze, evoking the dreamy feeling of the poem. The decadence of the detail and the rich colours concoct a feast for the eyes. Shakespeare was also a central source of inspiration for Millais, with some examples being ‘Ferdinand Lured by Ariel’ (1849), based on The Tempest, and ‘Mariana’ (1851), which is based on a character in Measure for Measure. However, my favourite of Millais’ paintings – based upon another of Shakespeare’s works (Hamlet) – is ‘Ophelia’ (1851-52).

The beauty of the natural setting of ‘Ophelia’ has a comfortable familiarity to it, harkening back to country brooks and the rich variety of undergrowth that feels so interlinked to childhood. However, the truly captivating feature of the painting is, of course, Ophelia herself. The glistening, ornate dress, the half-submersion in the murky depths, the languid, serene expression on her face. One could almost imagine that she is about to speak. Indeed, it is this sense of what is about to happen, this liminality, that encapsulates the work as a whole: Ophelia is between life and death, between humanity and nature, between ‘madness’ and sanity. She occupies an ambiguous position as woman in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Millais brings this to the foreground. Ophelia is a favourite subject of mine in art, and I feel that no other artist has quite so effectively captured and distilled her flitting essence in this scene. The blending of what is above the river with what is below makes the murky waters feel alive and real, just about to drag Ophelia into their depths.

Whilst ‘Ophelia’ is my favourite painting, there are some other standout mentions from Millais’ body of work. ‘The Bridesmaid’ (1851) is vividly surreal in its use of symbolic objects and colour, with the deeply tragic, apprehensive gaze of the bridesmaid playing right into Millais’ forte of melancholic women. ‘Dew-Drenched Furze’ (1889-90) is a subdued beauty, the hazy nature of the piece effectively capturing the temporality of dawn, so that you can almost smell the crisp clean air of daybreak. ‘The Vale of Rest’ (1858-1859) holds an eerie realism, and again exemplifies Millais’ ability to capture the temporal, with the gorgeous sunset illuminating an otherwise sombre scene at a graveyard.

Millais’ work has the capacity to capture the intimacy of human experience, whilst also evoking the magnificence of that grander ‘beyond’ realised through nature. It is beauty, in every brushstroke.