The paintings which Millais created during the 19th Century have become some of the most recognisable, iconic images in British art. Millais was the one Pre-Raphaelite artist who really achieved critical acclaim and success during his lifetime. He had the ability to bring a scene to life with vivid clarity, and posessed in depth knowledge of literature and symbolism to back up his work contextually, making every detail within his art both important and intentional. Millais was not afraid of commercial success, and with 8 children to feed who can blame him? Millais has been accused of compromising his Pre-Raphaelite style, accepting highly paid commissions and becoming a popular mainstream artist, but Millais' choices made him one of the most successful artists of his age and earned him a prominent place in British art history.
Pre-Raphaelite art has been ever present throughout my life, I have admired and marvelled at the work of the Brotherhood for as long as I can remember. I recall thinking as a child the pieces were incomprehensibly perfect and technically at a level I could never hope to achieve. But it wasn't until I was at college I truly began to appreciate the in depth symbolism and stories behind the artworks which had been a part of my life for so long.
Millais famous masterpiece 'Ophelia' is a prime example of the complexities of Millais work, in subject matter, technique and symbolism. Depicting the tragic death of Ophelia, told in Shakespeare's 'Hamlet', Ophelia is driven mad by grief and drowns herself in a brook, singing all the time while she sinks to her muddy death. The riverbank which is the setting for the tragic scene was painted by Millais in situ over a long period of time, come rain or shine, every detail of the bank was laboriously recorded and painted. Every single flower in Ophelia's sodden posy has a symbolic meaning, dictated by the popular Victorian 'Language of Flowers', which Millais carefully chose to convey characteristics about Ophelia and her death. Famously, Elizabeth Siddal (whom later married fellow Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti) modeled for Ophelia, added into the already complete landscape, however after several hours in a cold bath tub she became ill, and unfortunately for Millais, he was considered responsible and had to foot Siddal's medical bill. His portrayal of Ophelia is truly haunting, with her vacant, sorrowful expression and hands outstretched in willing submission, she welcomes the release of death from her insanity and pain.
Nothing can quite prepare you for the wonder of seeing Millais' work up close and personal for the first time. I had arrogantly thought I would be unmoved having spent so many years staring at books and prints. But my first ever trip to Tate Britain (and subsequent ones) have proved just how wrong I was. Everything is a feast for the eyes, every artwork a joy to absorb and even the gilded frames which fill the walls are a masterpiece of craftsmanship and conception themselves.
The incredible vivid green and sheer vibrancy of Ophelia I remember was larger than life. And the painstaking detail of every leaf and flower, and every shadow and highlight upon them, regardless of their place in the composition is artistic perfection I could only dream of achieving.
The electric blue of Mariana's dress was utterly breathtaking, I recall being absolutely transfixed by its sheer boldness, and in awe of the delicacy of the velvet texture. The detailed memory and emotions it caused have stayed with me ever since, as fresh now as they were all those years ago.
In my naivety I had no idea that no amount of books and internet images could prepare me for the true majesty and skill with which these images were painstakingly rendered.