Our Spring magazine is finally here! Click here to view and read our new articles!

The Pre-Raphaelites: Sir John Everett Millais and Ophelia

By Agata Lunarska

John Everett Millais was born in 1829 in Southampton. He showed extraordinary talent in painting and drawing and at the age of 11 he started attending the Royal Academy Schools in London. He debuted with a painting Christ in the House of His Parents in 1850, which was received with a great deal of controversy.

The picture depicted young Jesus in a carpenter’s workshop. Neither the figures nor the scenery were idealized or beautified in order to fit with the holiness of the theme, which stood against the contemporary tradition. Thus, the painting was heavily criticized. On the other hand, it turned the spotlight on Millais and the pre-Raphaelites.

The Brotherhood

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was started by three young artists: John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti who rebelled against the academic approach to art preached by the Royal Academy. ‘Pre-Raphaelite’, because they drew their inspiration from artists that came before Raphael (1483-1520). They valued painting outside, in nature, in order to capture all the smallest details of the landscape. Members of the brotherhood rejected academic idealism, its rules of perfect beauty and established poses of figures. They strived for simplicity and honesty, often approaching popular subjects of art in a completely new way. This was consistent with the group’s program, which put emphasis on everything direct, original and discarded what was regular and often another copy of an exhausted theme.

Mary Like No Other

An example of such an original approach is The Annunciation (Ecce ancilla domini) by Dante Gabriel Rosetti. There have been many paintings visualizing this scene – Mary receiving news from Angel Gabriel that she would give birth to Christ, but none like this. Here, Gabriel has no wings but flames at his feet. Another break with tradition is the pose in which Mary is portrayed. Usually, she is seen sitting with a book, with one hand raised or placed on her heart. Here, she is in a nightgown, cowering on her bed. Mary is leaning against the wall, as if what she heard was too much.

Her face expression and body language suggest that she is very uncomfortable, possibly scared and in disbelief. This varies from the traditional representation, which portrays her as a calm, mature woman. There are two lily springs. One is offered to Mary by Gabriel. It might symbolize purity and innocence.

The other one is upside down on a red background. This one could represent a foreshadowing of Christ’s death and resurrection, with the colour red symbolizing his blood.

In the painting, the predominant colour is white, which is also a novelty. Most portrayals of the Annunciation put emphasis on the colour blue, because it is strongly associated with Mary.


One of the greatest masterpieces of Pre-Raphaelites is Ophelia (1852, below) by John Everett Millais. The artist started by painting the background, which took him about three months working outside. Back in his studio, he began to paint Ophelia. His model was Elizabeth Siddal, who later became a painter, poet and wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She was posing wearing an antique, embroidered gown, laying in a bathtub filled with water.

Eventually, Siddal caught a terrible cold and Millais was forced to pay her medical bills. The painting illustrates a moment from Hamlet when Ophelia finds out that Hamlet, her fiancé, killed her father. This caused her to lose her mind and drown herself in a river. She is depicted floating in the water, before she drowns. Her palms are facing upwards, signifying her acceptance of fate. Behind her, there is a willow that has fallen and regrown.

Bending over the river, it creates an arch, which brings to mind a gate to another world. Ophelia is surrounded by flowers, which were mentioned in the play. Red poppies symbolize death, daisies – innocence, rose – youth, pansies – unrequited love, bellflowers – sadness and the chain of violets around the neck is said to symbolize faithfulness. Her death is contrasted with the blooming nature that surrounds her. In line with Pre-Raphaelites’ convictions, Millais painted the plants very faithfully to how he saw them, paying special attention to detail.

Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais, 1852.

Ophelia was very well received and gained plenty of recognition. It was purchased by the Royal Academy in 1852. Next year, John Everett Millais became an Associate of the Royal Academy, which is an event considered to be the end of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Author: Agata Lunarska