In 1852 a woman lay in a freezing bathtub of water. Her name was Elizabeth (Lizzie) Siddal and her reward for the cold which contributed to her poor health was that Sir John Everett Millias was painting a work that would forever immortalise her as Ophelia. There are other artists, other Pre-Raphaelites even (including her husband Dante Gabriel Rossetti), that have painted the heroine who was loved by Hamlet more than forty thousand brothers could (not that he followed through on his innuendo to the poor girl the manwhore!) but none capture Ophelia as well as Millias. I believe that this is due to Lizzie herself and the way Millias chose to portray her.

Fan Stephanie Pina, who created the wonderful site lizziesiddal.com, makes the observation that in his painting, First Madness of Ophelia Rossetti chooses the following passage from Hamlet and then paints his wife as Ophelia is interesting given the tumulus nature of their relationship.

Hamlet : I did love thee once.

Ophelia : Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.

Hamlet : You should not have believed me; for virtue cannot so inoculate our old shock but we shall 
relish of it: I loved you not.

Ophelia : I was the more deceived.

Hamlet : Get thee to a nunnery, why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things…

Lizzie shared many characteristics with Ophelia; the dramatic relationship, the mental instability and the experience of profound grief. That Lizzie was the real world Ophelia is often remarked yet it was Millias’ portrayal of her in Ophelia that Rossetti’s brother William remarked as being the most like Lizzie.

Not that an apt portrayal of Lizzie automatically translates to an apt portrayal of Ophelia. Rather that capturing the essence of Lizzie means getting close to what many of us understand as Shakespeare’s vision of Ophelia. The painting is frighteningly realistic as the detail is astounding (I first saw it aged 18 and still remember how affected I was) but it’s the emotion that really jumps from the canvas, a duality of peace and anguish that sends a shiver down your spine.

I got thinking about Lizzie twice this week having not given her a thought for a year or two. Firstly because I started painting again myself this week and that often makes me think of both great paintings and Lizzie as a model turned artist, inspired as she was by the men she played muse to but also because the boyfriend watched Wild Swimming this week where the annoyingly talented Dr Alice Roberts pranced about being smart and gorgeous and making the boyfriend go all gooey. I can’t remember what about the programme got us talking about Lizzie but I ran upstairs to get a book so I could show him a picture of Ophelia.


For me, art requires participation. I am no artist, I barely dabble but I find there are two wonderful benefits to putting brush to canvas. Firstly is the relaxation and clarity of thought which is why I’ve been painting this week. Rather like creating a mood board, I’m painting elements that I want in my life so as best to reach my goals and dreams. Secondly, is that by engaging in the process I find my mind is more able to focus on a painting. It’s as though appreciating a piece of work requires a certain meditative state and as a somewhat hyperactive creature, I benefit from activity that helps me reach that state.

Participation needn’t mean painting; Stephanie Pina participates by encouraging discussion. Rather than just observe, she explores the stories.

It reflects life as a whole then. We can look to people, places and experiences and observe or we can engage. On our recent holiday to France, the boyfriend and I made a conscious effort not to get caught up in the tourist activity of ticking off must-see places (although I confess there were a few must-eats) and instead try to be led by our moods and intuition. It was surprisingly challenging and our day in Avignon was rather marked by my set of clichéd photographs. Yet as I looked through the images upon my return as I performed the essential task of putting them on Facebook, I realised there was a painting to be made. Something to reflect the city, my relationship at that period and the fact my skirt kept blowing up. Even if I never paint it, I moved beyond the consumer I was while I was there and began to be more active in my observation.

I think that’s why art has such a profound effect on us. Through necessity we cannot appreciate every moment but art reminds us to stop and look more deeply. It also makes you appreciate being able to pull on a jumper when you’re a bit cold – seriously what has happened to our summer?
8/17/2010 03:07:21 am

I love Hamlet. And in general, I identify much more with theatre (and other forms of literature) than with visual arts, I don't know whether it's partly because of my dodgy eyesight... Did you read my art post last summer? (http://blog.rachelcotterill.com/2009/08/me-art-and-41000-leds.html in case you missed it)

Reply



Leave a Reply.