The Wonderful Secret Language of Flowers of `Ophelia`

The Wonderful Secret Language of Flowers of `Ophelia`
In this article, I will talk about the secret language of Millais’ flowers present in the painting ‘Ophelia’. Painting is an artistic medium of unimaginable power, having the capacity to visually create both worldly and bizarre representations of the material and sometimes the immaterial.
Wonderful Secret
Ophelia by John Everett Millais (1852). Part of the Tate Gallery collection.

Based entirely on an elegant representation of the immortal sleep, Sir John Everet MIllais’ masterpiece `Ophelia` uses Mimesis, in an attempt to capture the imagination of its audience, who glancing curiously at the beautiful maiden who appears to sleep a most peaceful sleep on a waterbed, having flowers as her guardians. At times, one may even ask: `When will the girl wake up?`. But, before we start analysing the visuals of the painting, one should know some things about its creator, its life, and its convictions. 

Artist presentation

Sir John Everett Millais was an English illustrator and painter from the 19th century. He lived between 1829 and 1896 and to this day he is considered one of the most important figures of industrial times, up to this date. One of the most important representatives of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and one of the founders of this artistic movement, Millais along with his contemporaries Hunt and Rosetti believed in the importance of imagination and advocated against the artificial and mundane rigours of the Academical World, in an attempt to precisely paint the morale of their time. Most of the time, the Brotherhood painted famous Biblical figures or depicted scenes from different literary masterpieces.

The painting `Ophelia` does just that, it depicts the death scene of the heroine with the same name from Shakespeare’s magnum opus, `Hamlet`. But unlike the lugubrious symbolism of the painting, Millais created a wonderfully animated flora as background, adorned with magical colours and plants which entomb the muse, creating the false impression of a hibernating girl. There are – seemingly – little to no detail about the back story and the pedigree of the damned one, the audience being tricked into thinking nothing of the maiden’s mal d’amour or the grotesqueness of the painting. Here the flowers come into play. 

Secrets of the Flowers

Millais ensured to integrate every little detail of the girl’s backstory into his painting, from the silver dress, as a symbol of nobility, to the rigor mortis as indicative of her recent passing. Thus, we shall see some of the flowers and secrets they are hiding. Following the Pre-Raphaelite tradition and making use of Ruskin’s “truth to nature”, Millais uses symbolically powerful plants like the weeping willow -also present in Ophelia’s death scene in Hamlet, we will see that there are numerous plants which are found in Shakespeare’s text as well- whose name is indicative of Millais’ sentiment, representing also forsaken love. 

The Wonderful Secret Language of Flowers of `Ophelia`
Nettle Plant

Then, probability using Gertrude’s speech as guidance, we can found numerous spring flowers such as ‘crow-flower, nettles, daisies, and long purples’ (Hamlet). Most of these botanical elements represent love, hate, restfulness, lust and tell the story of the dead maiden.

Tate museum tells us how the “crow-flower” is a symbol of ingratitude and infantility and could symbolize the almost childish infatuation Ophelia had for her beloved who betrayed her trust and killed his father, “nettles” represent the pain she had to suffer, as some varieties of nettle are poisonous, “daisies” are the symbol of innocence and love which are painted near Ophelia’s corpse, and so on. Moreover, there can be found symbols of lost innocence and consummate love (viewed as a sin in Shakespeare’s time) represented by the “long purples” “That liberal shepherds give a grosser name” (Hamlet).

The mixture of plants and colours creates the perfect ambient for the dream-like representation of suicide, the grotesque coming from the face of Ophelia and not from her position or the natural space. I am sure that the painting has many more secrets that I may have missed, but until my next analysis of this gorgeous creation I hope to leave you fully emerged in Millais’ universe and I invite you to discover more of his wonderful works and to find out more of his secrets.


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