The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a clandestine collective of painters that emerged in England during the Victorian era, sought to revive the lost artistry of the Renaissance. They aimed to rediscover the purity and originality of Italian art that predated the great Raphael. Through their commitment to detail, vibrant colors, and devotion to nature, these painters ushered in a new era of artistic expression.

The Pre-Raphaelite Philosophy

The Pre-Raphaelite painters, driven by a shared desire to restore the glory of art, delved into realism and drew inspiration from the Middle Ages, literature, poetry, and biblical themes. By proudly signing their works as PRB, short for Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, they challenged the conservative norms of British society and provoked a heated reaction.

In 1850, the Pre-Raphaelites published The Germ, a magazine that outlined their artistic principles. However, the publication faced intense criticism, except for the support of the writer and art critic, John Ruskin.

Ophelia’s Tale

One of the most iconic works of the Pre-Raphaelite movement is “Ophelia” by John Everett Millais. Painted in 1851, just three years after the establishment of the Pre-Raphaelite style, this masterpiece showcases Millais’ departure from traditional techniques.

The painting depicts the tragic character of Ophelia from Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet.” Ophelia descends into madness and ultimately meets her demise by drowning herself in a brook after her lover, Hamlet, kills her father. Millais captured this poignant moment with great attention to detail.

Symbolism and Imagery

In “Ophelia,” Millais expertly encapsulates the essence of Ophelia’s tragedy. The painting portrays her floating in the water, her lifeless face revealing a haunting expression. Her delicate clothing and flowing hair symbolize the loss of her youth and surrender to death.

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Every detail in the painting serves a purpose. The rose, known as “the rose of May” to Ophelia’s brother, represents love and innocence. Willows, chrysanthemums, and nettles evoke betrayal and pain. Pansies symbolize vain love, while the necklace around Ophelia’s neck represents loyalty, chastity, and death.

The Intense Creative Process

To capture the essence of death, Millais chose to paint “Ophelia” en plein air, a technique favored by the Pre-Raphaelites. He spent five months by the River Hogsmill in southeast England, meticulously studying native flora.

The process was not without challenges. Millais contended with large flies and faced legal troubles for trespassing and damaging the fields. Elizabeth Siddal, Millais’ muse and a fellow artist, bravely submerged herself in a bathtub filled with water to pose as Ophelia. This dedication resulted in Siddal falling ill and Millais having to pay for her treatment at the request of her father.

The Lasting Legacy

Completed in 1852, “Ophelia” divided critics at the time but has since become an emblem of the Pre-Raphaelite period. Alongside its naturalistic portrayal, the painting beautifully incorporates the language of flowers. The meticulously depicted flowers floating on the water hold profound symbolism, and their meanings, though ancient, remain relevant even in Victorian England.

The lasting allure of “Ophelia” lies not only in its technical mastery but also in its ability to evoke emotions and tell a compelling story. As with the timeless beauty of flowers, this masterpiece continues to bloom, resonating with audiences for generations to come.

To learn more about the mesmerizing world of art and explore other captivating stories, visit Caravansarai.

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