John Everett Millais (1829-1896) was an English painter and illustrator and one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, whose intentions were to produce an art reform by rejecting what they considered to be the mechanistic approach first adopted by the Mannerists who suceeded Raphael and Michelangelo. One of the most famous paintings of the group was produced when the youth enthusiasm was at the peak. With a painstaking attention to detail and love to poetic, symbolism were characteristic traits of their style.
Shakespeare was a favourite source of inspiration for all the Pre-Raphaelits. Here, John Everett Millais depicts a scene from Hamlet where Ophelia throws herself in the river and drowns after her father has been killed by her lover. Shakespeare had emphasized the plight of his deranged heroine by describing how she garlanded herself with a variety of flowers, each of which had appropriate, symbolic associations. Millais followed this lead, portraying the blooms, with botanical accuracy and adding examples from the Victorian Language of Flowers. Among others, he included pansies (love in vain), violets (fidelity), nettles (pain), daisies (innocence), pheasant’s eyes (sorrow), forget-me-nots and poppies (death). This final association is also suggested by the outline of a skull, formed by the foliage on the right of the painting. It refers not only to Ophelia’s death, but also to the famous graveyard scene which followed it, featuring Hamelt with Yorick’s skull. Millais’s obsession with accuracy was not limited to the flowers. He spent four months working on the background, at a spot near the Hogsmill River in Surrey, England. The model, too, was obliged to suffer for his art. She was Lizzie Siddall, Dante Rossetti’s future wife. For weeks on end, she posed in a bath full of water, heated from below by a number of lamps.