The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood scandalised the Victorians with their unconventional paintings. But Ophelia by John Everett Millais was loved even when first completed in 1852. It remains one of the most popular paintings in the Tate collection and the gallery’s best-selling postcard.
The Industrial Revolution was in full blast, bringing with it a new freedom of movement. Millais, one of the founders of the Brotherhood, would take the train out of London and paint nature as he saw it, not according to the fixed conventions taught at the Royal Academy.
Surrounding the haunting figure of the drowning Ophelia is an array of vegetation depicted in painstaking detail and the flowers associated with her in Hamlet. This striving for realism meant only tiny areas of canvas were covered at a time, and it took Millais 5 months to capture the scene by the Hogsmill river in Ewell. Not all the flowers in the painting bloom at the same time.
Tate Learn Online focuses on the details of the painting and explains the symbolic nature of the flowers, for example, the red poppy that represents sleep and death. The Purple Loosestrife in the top right corner was Millais’ interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Long purples”, although these are thought to refer to Purple Orchids.