A passion for realism

Tragic women depicted in beautiful settings and in intricate detail were a trademark of Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Joanna Banham looks at the master of the movement

Sir John Everett Millais's painting of "Ophelia" (1851-52) is one of the best-known and most popular pictures in Tate Britain. It is an icon of Pre-Raphaelite art, a vivid expression of a new approach to nature, and a haunting image of a tragic, romantic heroine.

The subject is taken from Shakespeare, which was a popular source with many Victorian artists. It represents a scene from Hamlet in which Ophelia - driven mad by the death of her father - stumbles into the water while picking flowers by the edge of a stream. Weighed down by her water-logged dress, she drowns soon afterwards. Interestingly, this incident is not actually shown in the play, but is recounted by Hamlet's mother, who describes how Ophelia "Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide, and, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up; which time she chanted snatches of old tunes, as one incapable of her own distress".

Millais's aim is to bring this passage to life and to visualise it so convincingly that spectators would believe they were looking at a real event taking place in front of them. The quest for verisimilitude, or "truth to nature" as it was termed, was a central tenet of Pre-Raphaelitism. Founded in 1848, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood rejected the contrived gestures, imaginary settings and generalised treatments characteristic of art exhibited at that time in the Royal Academy.

In their place they championed a new, more realistic depiction of nature based on the direct observation of actual figures and settings, and involving vivid colours and meticulously rendered details. In keeping with these principles, Millais sought out a real location for "Ophelia" and spent several months in the summer and autumn of 1851 faithfully recording the landscape on the banks of the river Hogsmill, near Ewell in Surrey.

The practice of plein-air painting, or painting out of doors, is now commonly associated with the Impressionists, but was actually a Pre-Raphaelite innovation. Unlike the Impressionists, however, Millais did not want to capture the fleeting moment, but create a more permanent version of reality by reproducing every object with photographic clarity and in minute detail.

The process of painting outside was made possible partly by the availability of ready-mixed oil paints in small metal tubes - introduced in 1842 - which meant that for the first time artists were able to carry these materials with them into the landscape. Even so, it was still quite cumbersome and fraught with difficulties. Millais described a litany of problems that had to be overcome, including inclement weather, insects falling into his paints, interference from stray cattle and wild swans, and accusations of trespass by angry farmers. He declared the "painting of a picture under such circumstances would be a greater punishment to a murderer than hanging".

But the endurance of such hardships was evidence of his commitment to painting in front of nature and lent a sense of moral purpose to his endeavours. Many of the plants and flowers arrayed in rich profusion on the river bank and in the water were chosen for their symbolism. The willow and nettle, for example, stand for forsaken love and pain, and the chain of violets around Ophelia's neck for faithfulness and chastity. The pansies, poppy and daisies she clasps in her hands symbolise death and innocence, and the forget-me-nots floating in the water stand for remembrance. Each plant is clearly identifiable and is portrayed with extraordinary precision.

The high degree of finish - frequently likened to the effects of photography - was achieved by using fine watercolour brushes and thin oil paints that enabled Millais to create minute, virtually invisible brushstrokes capable of reproducing tiny details. The brilliance of the hues that the artist observed outdoors was further enhanced by the Pre-Raphaelite practice of using a white ground over which the colours were laid.

Millais was also experimenting with new pigments, such as emerald green, vivid yellows and a new range of purples. These colours appeared unnaturally bright compared with the dull tones used by earlier landscape painters. Indeed many critics found them vulgar and garish but they were ideal for Millais's purpose of capturing the vivid and intense colours to be found in nature.

After completing the background, Millais returned to London to begin work on the figure. The model for "Ophelia" was Elizabeth Siddal, a favourite of the Pre-Raphaelites who later married painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She posed - dressed in an antique embroidered dress purchased specially for the occasion - in a bath of water so that the artist could observe the effect of a figure floating in a stream. Once again, the quest for accuracy took precedence over comfort or convenience. Siddal was required to pose in these conditions over a period of four months and once caught a severe cold when the lamps that heated the water were allowed to go out.

The Pre-Raphaelites rarely employed professional models, but preferred to enlist the help of family members and friends. This was partly for reasons of economy, but also because they liked to use sitters who they knew and who they felt had an affinity with the characters that they portrayed. Siddal's youth and beauty and, in particular, her delicate features, pale skin and long red hair, made her an ideal choice for the role of Ophelia, and Millais represents her as the beautiful and innocent victim of a cruel world.

It is interesting to consider how this image relates to other views of women at the time. The spectacle of the supine floating figure and the claustrophobic feeling of the verdant setting suggests the enforced idleness and enclosed lives of many middle-class Victorian women. Also, the view of Ophelia as a doomed and helpless victim conforms to a stereotype that was increasingly prevalent in romantic literature, and especially in the work of poet Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Another hugely popular picture in the Tate's collection, JW Waterhouse's "Lady of Shalott", exemplifies this trend and represents a woman fated to pass away after gazing at Sir Lancelot. There are numerous other examples of representations of Arthurian heroines, such as Elaine, who died of unrequited love. Millais's painting also has an additional, unintended pathos when we recall that 10 years later, Elizabeth Siddal, like Ophelia, suffered a nervous breakdown and died of an overdose of laudanum, possibly taking her own life.

Joanna Banham is head of public programmes, interpretation and education at Tate Britain

Sir John Everett Millais 1829-1896

Sir John Everett Millais trained at the Royal Academy Schools from age 11. In 1848, with William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, he formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and Millais produced paintings following the Brotherhood's doctrine of "truth to nature" and historical exactitude. From the late 1850s he concentrated on more commercial subjects, such as sentimental studies of children and portraits. As the first artist to become a baronet, he became rich and was elected president of the Royal Academy.

Teaching tips

Millais's painting provides a useful framework for considering various themes: realism, narrative, the conditions involved in producing a picture of this kind, and Victorian views of women. Ask pupils to think about how realistic Millais's picture appears. Is it like a photograph or a scene from a film? Can they really imagine it taking place? They can compare the artist's interpretation of realism with that of other artists in the gallery - from earlier and later periods - and think about how these differ.

In addition, they might consider what makes a subject appear realistic or convincing: the accumulation of every detail, the selection of one or two telling elements, or an emphasis on the emotional content of the scene, rather than an exhaustive exploration of its narrative. They can also think about the difficulties that Millais and his model may have faced in visualising this scene, and what view of women this image suggests.

Topics for discussion

* How difficult is it to work out what is happening in this picture (KS2-3)?

* Which sections of the painting seem most convincingly real? Is any part less convincing (KS1-2)?

* How does Millais make us identify with the woman and her plight (KS2-3)?

* Contrast this Victorian representation of a woman with others in Tate Britain. Can you draw any conclusions as to how male artists might have viewed women at the time (KS2-3)?

* If possible, look at some examples of Victorian photography in Tate Britain or other galleries, such as the National Portrait Gallery. What compositional devices may the artist have borrowed from photography (KS 4+)?

* Do the colours seem appropriate to the mood? (KS1-2.)

Activity

Make a square hole in a sheet of card. Look through it and isolate a detail. Sketch what you see as carefully as you can. What did you discover in doing this? What does your detail contribute to the whole painting? What does it lack without it? To find out, close one eye and hold your hand out so that your detail is concealed (key stages 34.)

Links

Look at other early Pre-Raphaelite works by Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Look at contemporary photography to see how it differs from current work, and to find possible influences on the art of the time.

Compare the range of colours in Pre-Raphaelite landscapes with those in works by earlier artists, such as Constable.

From Investigating Tate Britain: A Guide for Teachers (2001), by Tina Melbourne and Miquette Roberts. The booklet is part of The Tate Britain Teacher's Kit (pound;12.99), which is available at The Tate Shops.

Tel: 0207 887 8869 JB

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