Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Painting the Background for Ophelia

In the summer of 1851, Pre-Raphaelite painters John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt traveled to the Elwell River in England, each in hopes of painting the background for an ambitious picture that they had planned in their heads. 

Millais wanted to paint Hamlet's Ophelia drowning in a stream, and his plan was to paint the background first.


Following the advice of critic John Ruskin to capture every detail faithfully—“rejecting nothing—selecting nothing”—Millais dutifully recorded the "flowering rush, river daisy, forget-me-not, willow herb, meadowsweet, and the wonderful tangle of brier bush with its multitude of dog roses in bud and bloom."

According to a 1923 biography: 'They were up by six o’clock and at their selected spots by eight o’clock, where they painted until evening, returning to their lodgings about seven o’clock; Hunt had to walk four miles and Millais two to their respective painting places. 

'In a letter to Mr. Combe, Millais gives an interesting description of the trials and difficulties of the time : “I sit tailor-fashion under an umbrella throwing a shadow scarcely larger than a halfpenny for eleven hours, with a child’s mug within reach to satisfy my thirst from the running stream beside me. I am threatened with a notice to appear before the magistrate for trespassing in a field and destroying the hay; likewise by the admission of a bull in the same field after the said hay be cut; I am also in danger of being blown by the wind into the water and becoming intimate with the feelings of Ophelia when that lady sank to a muddy death, together with her (less likely) total disappearance through the wrath of the flies. There are two swans who not a little add to my misery by persisting in watching me from the exact spot I wish to paint, occasionally destroying every water-weed within their reach.’’'

'Their lodgings were far from comfortable; their hunger had to be appeased with an unvarying diet of chops, until Millais writes that he has taken such “an aversion to sheep that I feel my very feet revolt at the proximity of woollen socks.”'

The process of painting the background on location took more than two months.
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Quotes from 'John Everett Millais: Master Painters of the World' by Arthur Fish, 1923
Previously on the blog: Ophelia by Millais

11 comments:

Jeff said...

It's interesting how much ideas on art have changed. How many artists would spend 2 months doing all that 'background' detail now?

Wendy said...

Am I the only one who thinks it looks like she's lying in a puddle? She looks horrified by her fate but all she has to do to save her self is stand up.

Mel Gibsokarton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rich said...

That was right at the dawn of New Age of Photography.

Robert Cosgrove said...

So how was the posing of Ophellia accomplished?

James Gurney said...

Robert, Wiki sez: "Ophelia was modelled by artist and muse Elizabeth Siddal, then 19 years old. Millais had Siddal lie fully clothed in a full bathtub in his studio at 7 Gower Street in London.[8] As it was now winter, he placed oil lamps under the tub to warm the water, but was so intent on his work that he allowed them to go out. As a result, Siddal caught a severe cold, and her father later sent Millais a letter demanding £50 for medical expenses."

CerverGirl said...

Agreed Wendy! … Lol

rock995 said...

I'm certainly less likely to complain about Louisiana mosquitoes after reading what Millais went through.

Susan Krzywicki said...

Interesting that Millais knew the names of the local flora - "...flowering rush, river daisy, forget-me-not, willow herb, meadowsweet, and the wonderful tangle of brier bush with its multitude of dog roses in bud and bloom." in such detail. I think this is another skill - related but separate - that some artists may not be as attuned to now: how to identify the plants that are being painted.

Knowing the names helps to add nuance to a painting, I think. But maybe that is because I am focused on native plants and their role in the cycle of life.

Lynnwood said...

Susan,I agree! Knowing the names of plants,and animals....orcloud formations enhances my enjoyment of them.Like just the name of friend can conjure up all their qualities!

Lynnwood said...

Susan,I agree! Knowing the names of plants,and animals....orcloud formations enhances my enjoyment of them.Like just the name of friend can conjure up all their qualities!