Ophelia, we’ve all seen her. Lying back in the river in that dress, beautific smile on her face surrounded by flowers and foliage. Just in case somehow you’ve missed out on this painting, though to be honest I think you’ll have seen it somewhere, perhaps on the wall of a certain type of teenager, here it is.
We’ve probably all heard the story of Lizzie Siddal in the bath catching a cold too (she caught a cold, got over the cold, though her dad still stung Millais for a £50 doctor’s bill, go dad…).
I heard a quote on a TV documentary, and I can only find it on one website though I have no reason to disbelieve the truth of it, that a critic said that Millais had ‘even made dying beautiful’, and bloody hell hadn’t he just? There she is, floating down the river, flowers slipping from her fingers and her complexion just the right shade of pale and interesting.
Much over the years has been made of the amazing attention to detail Millais got into the painting, weeks spent on the side of the hogsmill river (yes, we know exactly where) getting all the flowers and leaves right to the point where a botany professor once said that he’d be able to use it as a teaching resource. Then all the time with Lizzie in that bath (a story which every damn website feels the need to recount painting her as the dying Ophelia. Yes, it’s a painting which is all about accuracy John Everett, we get that…
Though of course it isn’t because nobody drowns like that!
First off, sorry to say angst-ridden teenagers of the world, nobody dies beautifully. Your body, however crazy you may be because your lover has murdered your father, wants to live and if you start breathing water it really wants to get some air instead. The UK lifeboat service the RNLI released some very disturbing videos about what drowning is like, and this chap recounts his near-drowning experience while surfing. Go off and google for images of dead bodies if you don’t believe me on this one. After you’re dead, especially under less than ideal surroundings, you look like crap rather than somebody who has slipped into sleep. Ophelia isn’t a distraught teenager driven to suicide by despair; she’s sleeping beauty with duckweed.
You read a lot about how this painting shows Millais’ obession with detail and accuracy, all those days on the riverbank getting the flowers right, etc. But the painting has nothing at all to do with accuracy because the actual subject of it is entirely devoid of accuracy! It’s a painting of a drowning girl..devoid of the actual act of drowning. This page makes the suggestion that actually this Ophelia just after she’s drowned, which of course allows Millais to avoid all that nasty drowning stuff but really only shifts the question of accuracy along a notch because if she’s a corpse what in heck is she doing with those hands? Now my experience with dead bodies is zero, but common sense tells me that on the whole they’re not inclinded to pose their hands and arms like that, and even if she’d managed to drown in that pose they’re going to collapse again once she’d died. Even the much vaunted foliage is flawed as, because it took so long to paint, flowers appear next to each other which just don’t do that(see here).
So when we come down to it, what IS this painting about? It’s about pretty much all the other work by the PRB: great colours, ideally with an idealised pretty girl in it. Don’t get me wrong, on the whole I like the Pre-Raphaelites, but they’re not big into ‘real’ girls are they? You’ve heard the joke? ‘What’s the thinnest book in the world called?’ ‘Tolkein’s decent female characters’ – the same is true really about the Pre-Raphaelites depictions of women. Though they may have been better in real life, after all Millais obviously was a more attractive option for Effie than Ruskin was so either he was actually good company…or Ruskin was really dire (given the rumours that Ruskin didn’t even know what female plumbing looked like before they got married, it may be the latter). Ophelia had what it takes to be the subject of a great image, young, pushed over the edge by death and betrayal she kills herself in a great setting, it could be full of emotion and drama. Carravagio could have painted that; Francis Bacon could have painted that; Klimpt could have painted that; Bernini could have sculpted that.
Millais spent weeks painting flowers, then stuck a girl in a bathtub and painted her. What you see is what you get. It’s beautifully done and beautiful to look at, and devoid of reality and emotion.