Art History Lab

The Tragic Beauty: Ophelia’s Legacy in Literature, Art, and Feminism

John Everett Millais and His Influence on Art Styles

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of artists who sought to break away from traditional art styles of their time. One of its most prominent members was John Everett Millais, an English painter who was known for his exceptional talent and deep passion for art.

Through his work, Millais helped to redefine the art world and inspire generations of artists who followed in his footsteps.

John Everett Millais and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

John Everett Millais was a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of artists who sought to reject the traditional style of painting that was prevalent in the mid-19th century. The Brotherhood believed that contemporary art was filled with artificiality and lacked true artistic expression, and instead, they looked to medieval and early Renaissance art for inspiration.

Millais was a prodigy and began exhibiting his work at the Royal Academy of Arts when he was just 18. His style was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s beliefs, and his paintings often featured vibrant colors, stunning detail, and intricate symbolism.

Many of his pieces, such as “Christ in the House of His Parents,” caused controversy because they depicted religious figures as real people rather than prim and proper ideals. Millais went on to become one of the most celebrated artists of his time, and his work continues to inspire new artists today.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s influence on art styles was considerable as it was a catalyst for the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements, which were characterized by vibrant colors, stylized patterns, and the use of natural forms and materials. Millais’ Influence on Art Styles

Millais’ work was not only groundbreaking, but it also had a significant influence on other artists and art styles that followed.

He paved the way for art movements such as Art Nouveau and Art Deco, which were heavily influenced by his use of vibrant colors, stylized patterns, and natural forms. Vincent van Gogh was one of the many artists who were inspired by Millais.

He admired his technique and use of color and described him as “the one who has gripped my soul the most.” Van Gogh’s paintings were known for their bold, broad brushstrokes and their use of vibrant color, which drew influence from Millais’ work. James Abbot McNeill Whistler was another artist who was heavily influenced by Millais.

Whistler was impressed by his ability to convey emotion through his paintings, and he sought to emulate that in his own work. He also appreciated Millais’ use of light and the way he was able to convey a sense of atmosphere and mood in his paintings.

Ophelia and Millais’ Legacy

One of Millais’ most famous paintings is “Ophelia,” which he began working on when he was just 19 years old. The painting depicts Ophelia, a character from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” drowning in a river.

It has become an icon of the pre-Raphaelite style, and its striking beauty and tragic subject matter have captivated viewers for generations. The work was immortalized in more ways than one.

It was used as an illustration in literary anthologies and turned into a woodblock by the Dalziel Brothers. The painting became so popular that people began to try and recreate the scene in photography, making “Ophelia” one of the most reproduced works of art of the 19th century.

Millais’ Painting Process and Feedback

“Ophelia” is not only a testament to the power of Millais’ artistic skill, but it is also a testament to his dedication to his craft. To create the painting, Millais went to great lengths to get every detail just right.

He studied nature extensively, painted the flowers on location, and even used fresh flowers as models. His process was meticulous, but it ultimately paid off, as “Ophelia” became one of his most famous works.

It also helped to establish his reputation as one of the greatest artists of his time. Millais’ success was not just due to his own talent but also to the feedback he received from his peers.

Fellow members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, provided feedback on his work, offering critiques and suggestions for improvement. This collaboration helped to make the art of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood a collaborative effort, with each artist inspiring the other to new heights.


John Everett Millais was a groundbreaking painter who broke away from traditional art styles and helped to redefine the art world in his time. His work continues to inspire artists today, both in its original form and through the movements that it influenced.

From his founding membership in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to his meticulous approach to painting and the collaboration with his peers, Millais’ legacy is an enduring testament to the power and beauty of art. Ophelia’s Death in Hamlet

“Hamlet” by William Shakespeare is one of the most famous plays in history, and the tragic death of Ophelia is a pivotal moment in the story.

In the play, Ophelia drowns herself in a river after her father’s death and Hamlet’s rejection. Queen Gertrude describes the scene, saying “Her clothes spread wide, and mermaid-like a while they bore her up, which time she chanted snatches of old tunes, as one incapable of her own distress, or like a creature native and endued unto that element.”

Ophelia’s death is a significant moment in the play, as it marks the end of her tragic story and highlights the emotional turmoil that Hamlet and the other characters go through.

The description of her floating in the river underscores her innocence and ethereal nature, as well as the symbolism behind the flowers that were found floating around her. The Significance of Flowers in the Victorian Era

During the Victorian era, flowers were often used as symbols to convey feelings and emotions that could not be expressed through words.

The symbolism behind each flower was carefully studied and used to send messages to loved ones, friends, and acquaintances. In Millais’ painting, “Ophelia,” the flowers that surround her have symbolic meanings that add to the tragic tone of the scene.

The poppies, for example, represent death and sleep, while the daisies represent innocence, purity, and new beginnings. The daisies around Ophelia’s waist also convey the idea that she is floating on the water, making them a symbol of Ophelia’s peaceful passing.

Other flowers depicted in the painting, such as the pansies, fennel, and columbines, also have symbolic meanings. Pansies represent thoughts and remembrance, fennel represents flattery and deceit, and columbines signify betrayal and faithlessness.

The use of flowers in “Ophelia” adds depth to the painting’s narrative, conveying themes of innocence, death, and tragedy through a careful arrangement of symbolic elements. Visual Description and Composition of “Ophelia”

Millais’ “Ophelia” is a masterpiece of composition, with every element carefully chosen to convey its themes and narrative.

The painting shows Ophelia floating in the water, surrounded by flowers, with a distant landscape visible in the background. The composition of the painting draws the viewer’s attention to Ophelia, with her body placed in the center of the image and the flowers framing her.

The floating position of Ophelia’s body reinforces the idea of her passing, while also creating a sense of serenity. Her expression is peaceful, as if shes accepted her fate and found peace in the end.

The painting also shows Ophelia’s hair and dress billowing out around her, adding a sense of movement and making her seem weightless in the water. The Use of Color in “Ophelia”

The color green is particularly important in “Ophelia,” as it is the dominant color in the painting and is used to represent both life and death.

The green of the plants surrounding Ophelia is a vibrant and vital green, representing life and growth. However, the green of Ophelia’s dress and skin tone is muted and almost sickly, representing her tragic end.

The use of tonal contrasts also plays an essential role in the painting, with bright, vibrant colors used to emphasize both the flowers and the natural environment. This contrast heightens the sense of Ophelia’s isolation and emphasizes the tremendous loss of her life.

The Use of Texture in “Ophelia”

The texture of the painting is most evident in the natural environment portrayed in the background. The foliage of the trees on the river bank and the surface of the water are rendered with great detail, creating an almost photographic representation of Ophelia’s surroundings.

The texture of the flowers is also significant, with Millais having paid a close attention on each petal, stem and leaf of each flower. This gives them an almost tactile appearance, adding to the sense of realism within the painting.

The Use of Line in “Ophelia”

The use of line in the painting is varied and highly impactful. Millais makes use of vertical lines within the plants and horizontal lines in the horizon, which is a composition tool often used to add stability and calmness.

Diagonal lines are also used to create a sense of tension and motion, particularly in Ophelia’s hair and dress. The landscape orientation of the painting, with the river running horizontally through it, creates a sense of stability and adds to the natural feel of Ophelia’s environment.

The Use of Shape in “Ophelia”

The shapes within the painting are both organic and geometric. The flowers are organic in shape and often flowing, representing the natural world that Ophelia inhabits.

Geometric shapes, particularly the carved edges of the river banks and the diagonal lines of the dress and hair, add a sense of tension and instability to the painting. The framing effect created by the flowers surrounding Ophelia and the curve of the river bank also add a sense of depth to the scene, as though Ophelia is floating within a vast and open space.

The Use of Space in “Ophelia”

The space within the painting is heavily used to create a sense of three-dimensionality and depth. The foreground, representing the flowers and Ophelia, is brought into clear focus, while the background – with its distant landscape – is less clear and more vague.

This allows the viewer to focus on the central figure of Ophelia, while also giving a sense of the vastness and emptiness surrounding her. The ambiguity of the background space adds to the painting’s feeling of both hopelessness and serenity.


The painting “Ophelia” by John Everett Millais is a masterpiece of the Victorian era, capturing the tragedy of this scene from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and using a combination of color, composition, and symbolism to create a beautiful yet haunting image. Through the use of flowers, texture, line, shape, and space, Millais was able to convey the complex themes and emotions surrounding this tragic event, creating a painting that is both a marvel of composition and a deeply moving tribute to the tragedy of loss.

Ophelia’s Influence in Discussions of Feminism and Depiction of Women

The character of Ophelia has sparked many discussions and debates, particularly in relation to feminism and the portrayal of women in literature and art. Ophelia’s tragic fate and her submissiveness to the male characters in “Hamlet” have often been criticized as examples of how women were marginalized and silenced in Shakespeare’s works.

However, Ophelia’s character is not without agency or depth. She navigates between different expectations and pressures while grappling with her own emotions and desires.

Some feminist scholars argue that Ophelia’s descent into madness serves as a powerful critique of the restrictions placed on women during the time the play was written. In the painting “Ophelia” by John Everett Millais, Ophelia is presented as a complex figure, caught between her own desires and societal expectations.

The flowers surrounding her can be seen as both beautiful and oppressive, symbolizing the constraints placed on her as a woman. Ophelia’s influence extends beyond literature and art.

Her tragic story and symbolic meaning have been referenced in various forms of popular culture, including music, film, and fashion. Ophelia has become a symbol of female vulnerability and the consequences of societal pressures, sparking ongoing conversations about gender roles and the representation of women in both historical and contemporary contexts.

Salvador Dal’s Surrealist Interpretation of Ophelia’s Death

Salvador Dal, a famous surrealist artist, created his own interpretation of Ophelia’s death in his painting titled “Ophelia.” In this work, Dal explores the themes of death, beauty, and the botanical world. He presents Ophelia floating in the water, much like Millais’ depiction, but with a unique surrealist twist.

Dal’s “Ophelia” features an intricate interplay of flowers and plant life, imbued with symbolic meaning. Unlike Millais’ realistic portrayal of flowers, Dal’s depiction is exaggerated, distorted, and dreamlike.

Flowers become the embodiment of both beauty and decay, capturing the fleeting nature of life and the inevitability of death. By merging elements of Ophelia’s death and the botanical world, Dal contrasts the fragility of life with the enduring power of nature.

The painting reflects the surrealist belief in the subconscious, exploring the depths of the human psyche and the juxtaposition of beauty and darkness. Dal’s interpretation of Ophelia’s death adds a surreal twist to the iconic scene, inviting viewers to contemplate the complex relationship between life, death, and the natural world.

The Symbolic Flowers in John Everett Millais’ Famous Ophelia Painting

In John Everett Millais’ renowned painting of Ophelia, flowers play a significant symbolic role. Each flower depicted carries its own meaning, contributing to the overall narrative and the emotional depth of the painting.

The poppies scattered around Ophelia represent death and sleep, suggesting a peaceful passage from life to the afterlife. Poppies’ association with sleep also connects to Ophelia’s descent into madness, allowing her to escape the harsh realities of her existence.

Daisies, which symbolize innocence and purity, are delicately placed throughout the painting. They reflect Ophelia’s own purity and the tragedy of her untimely demise.

Fennel, represented by the feathery leaves, is traditionally associated with flattery and deceit. Its presence hints at the manipulations and betrayals that Ophelia experienced, contributing to her ultimate demise.

Other flowers, such as pansies and columbines, also adorn the painting, each carrying its own symbolic meaning. Pansies represent remembrance and thoughts, potentially alluding to Ophelia’s lasting impact on the story and the characters.

Columbines, on the other hand, symbolize betrayal and faithlessness, further emphasizing the complex web of relationships in the play. Through the careful inclusion of these symbolic flowers, Millais expertly weaves together a visual narrative that reflects Ophelia’s tragic fate and emphasizes the deeper emotions and themes within Shakespeare’s play.

Ophelia Painting and Themes of Death, Love, Life, Madness, and Nature

Millais’ “Ophelia” painting captures multiple themes that are integral to Shakespeare’s play, “Hamlet.” Ophelia’s death symbolizes the themes of death, love, life, madness, and nature that resonate throughout the play. Ophelia’s tragic demise reflects the pervasive presence of death in the play.

Her death, like many others in “Hamlet,” is untimely and serves as a reminder of the fragility of life and the inevitability of mortality. Love and its complexities are also intertwined with Ophelia’s fate.

Her suicide is driven by the loss of her father and the rejection of her love, Hamlet. Her death becomes a poignant representation of the destructive power of love when it is denied or goes unrequited.

Ophelia’s descent into madness is a central part of her character arc. The painting captures the ethereal beauty of her madness, emphasizing her fragile mental state and her inability to cope with the conflicts and betrayals surrounding her.

Nature plays a significant role, with Millais’ artistic rendering of Ophelia’s surroundings showcasing the intricate relationship between humans and the natural world. Ophelia’s immersion in the water signifies her return to nature and her release from the torments of life.

Symbolic Meanings and Themes in the Flowers of “Ophelia”

The flowers surrounding Ophelia in Millais’ painting contribute to the symbolic meanings and themes of the play “Hamlet” as a whole. Flowers within the painting serve as visual symbols for the motifs and emotions found in Shakespeare’s work.

The poppies, representing death and sleep, align with the recurring themes of mortality and the desire for respite from suffering. They reflect Ophelia’s longing for release from the turmoil she experiences.

Daisies, symbolizing innocence and purity, convey the theme of virtue and lost innocence, representing the tragic transformation of Ophelia from a pure and virtuous woman to a shattered soul. Fennel, with its association with deceit and flattery, mirrors the themes of betrayal and manipulation present in the play.

Its inclusion reminds viewers of the treacherous nature of relationships and the tragedy that unfolds as a result. Pansies, conveying remembrance and thoughts, allude to the lasting impact Ophelia’s character has on the story.

They symbolize both the memories of her presence and the thoughts provoked by her loss. Millais’ careful selection and positioning of these flowers in the painting add layers of depth to the narrative, intensifying the emotions and emphasizing the poetic and symbolic qualities found within “Hamlet.”


The story of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and its artistic representation, particularly in John Everett Millais’ iconic painting, has engendered discussions of feminism, the depiction of women, and the profound symbolism of flowers. Ophelia’s tragic fate continues to resonates with audiences and sparks conversations about gender roles, societal pressures, and the portrayal of women in literature and art.

Additionally, Salvador Dal’s surrealist interpretation of Ophelia’s death explores the themes of beauty, death, and the botanical world in a dreamlike manner. Millais’ “Ophelia” painting captures the symbolism of flowers, reflecting themes of death, love, life, madness, and nature that are prevalent in Shakespeare’s play.

The inclusion of specific flowers conveys nuanced meanings and contributes to the overall emotional impact of the painting. The enduring significance of Ophelia’s story and the powerful visual representation of these themes and symbols demonstrate the lasting power of “Hamlet” and its complex characters.

The story of Ophelia, as depicted in literature and art, holds a significant place in discussions of feminism, the portrayal of women, and the symbolism of flowers. John Everett Millais’ iconic painting captures the tragic themes of death, love, life, madness, and nature in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Salvador Dal’s surrealist interpretation adds a dreamlike quality that explores the juxtaposition of beauty and darkness.

The symbolic meanings of flowers in both works deepen the emotional impact, reflecting themes of innocence, betrayal, and remembrance. Ophelia’s influence extends beyond the arts, resonating in discussions of gender roles and societal pressures.

The enduring significance of “Hamlet” and the artistic representations of Ophelia emphasize the timeless power of literature and art to provoke reflection on complex human experiences. Ophelia’s story serves as a reminder of the enduring impact of tragedy, the complexities of gender dynamics, and the enduring power of artistic expression and interpretation.

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