New Pre-Raphaelite Sighting: Morris Wallpaper in Monarch of the Glen

New sighting added to the Unexpected Pre-Raphaelite Sightings page!

Monarch of the Glen:  Archie MacDonald, a young restaurateur is called back to his childhood home of Glenbogle where he is told he is the new Laird of Glenbogle.via IMDB.  Visit the Monarch of the Glen homepage at BBC.co.uk

Thank you to Lisa Gill for sharing her screencaps of Monarch of the Glen.  Lisa’s keen eye spotted what appears to be the William Morris Honeysuckle pattern on the walls and the Blackthorn pattern in the stack of fabric:

monarchoftheglen

monarchoftheglen2

Morris & Co. was founded by William Morris in 1861 and greatly influenced the Arts and Crafts movement.  Morris’ wallpaper designs are innovative, beautiful and timeless.

Posted in tv/film | 3 Comments

Waterhouse and Transformations

After my post about Clytie changing into the sunflower, I’ve been pondering transformations.

Lamia is perhaps my favorite example of a dramatic transformation.  Based on the poem by John Keats, Waterhouse depicts Lamia after she has transformed from serpent to woman.  I adore the vivid imagery of Keats’ poem (She was a gordian shape of dazzling hue…) but I also recommend that you read A.S. Byatt’s short story, A Lamia in the Cévennes, which can be found in her collection Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice. Lamia also appears in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere as a type of vampire known as a ‘velvet’.

'Lamia', John William Waterhouse

‘Lamia’, John William Waterhouse

Looking at Waterhouse’s Lamia, it is her beautiful human form that captures our attention.  But look at the snake skin winding around her body.  It is a reminder of her true form, a warning of what she is and what she always will be.

Waterhouse takes on another mythical transformation in Apollo and Daphne where Daphne can be seen transforming into a laurel tree.

 

'Apollo and Daphne', John William Waterhouse

‘Apollo and Daphne’, John William Waterhouse

“She rejected every lover, including Apollo. When the god pursued her, Daphne prayed to the Earth or to her father to rescue her, whereupon she was transformed into a laurel. Apollo appropriated the laurel for poets and, in Rome, for triumphs. Daphne was also loved by Leucippus, who was killed because of Apollo’s jealousy.” –Britannica.com

Daphne was not interested in lovers, not even the great god Apollo.  Ovid’s Metamorphoses tells us: “Straightaway Apollo loved, and Daphne ran even from the name of “lover”.  Companion of Diana, her joy was in the depths of the forests and the spoils of the chase; a headband kept her flowing hair in place.  Many suitors courted her, while she cared not for love and marriage; a virgin she roamed the pathless woods…”

She was one with the forest, enjoying the things which she loved (nature and hunting) and was thoroughly content with her life.  She was minding her own business when Apollo began to pursue her as if she were prey.  But we can not blame Apollo alone, because it was a boyish argument that sealed Daphne’s fate:

“Daphne, the daughter of Peneus, was the first object of Apollo’s love.  It was not blind fate who brought this about, but Cupid’s cruel anger.  Apollo, flushed with pride at his victory over Python, had seen Cupid drawing his bow and taunted him: “What business of yours are brave men’s arms, young fellow?” The bow suits my shoulder; I can take unerring aim at wild animals, or at my enemies.  I it was who laid low ground Python, though he stretched over wide acres of ground, with uncounted arrows.  You should be content with kindling the fires of love in some mortal with your torch; do not try to share my glory!”  To him Cupid replied:  “Although your arrows pierce every target, Apollo, mine will pierce you.  Just as all animals yield to you, so your glory is inferior to mine.”  And as he spoke he quickly flew to the peak of shady Parnassus and from his quiver drew two arrows.  Different were their functions, for the one, whose point was dull and leaden, repelled love; the other, golden, bright, and sharp aroused it.  Cupid shot the leaden arrow at Peneus’ daughter (Daphne), while he pierced Apollo’s inmost heart with the golden one”

Ah, that Cupid.  Angered by Apollo’s arrogance, he takes his revenge by shooting Apollo with an arrow that will arouse his love for Daphne while Daphne (who wanted no part of love anyway) was pierced by an arrow that will repel love. Daphne had repeatedly rejected love in her life, so perhaps it would have been crueler for Cupid to strike her with the golden bow that would have made her turn her back on the life she had chosen in order to love the god Apollo.  It seems a fitting fate that instead of love, she would become part of the forest she adored.  Daphne flees. She who usually hunts has become the prey.  “Even as he spoke Daphne fled from him and ran on in fear; then too she seemed lovely — the wind laid bare her body and her clothes fluttered as she ran and her hair streamed out behind.  In flight she was yet more beautiful.   Yet the young god could not bear to have his words of love go for nothing…” (Ovid)   Apollo chases and chases her, until Daphne loses her strength and can go on no further.  She is scared and Apollo is relentless.  “Now Daphne’s strength was gone, drained by the effort of her flight, and Pale she saw Peneus’ waters.  “Help me Father,” she cried, “if a river has power; change me and destroy my beauty which has proved too attractive!” Hardly had she finished her prayer when her little limbs grew heavy and sluggish, thin bark enveloped her soft breasts; her hair grew into leaves, her arms into branches.  Her feet, which until now had run so swiftly, held fast with clinging roots.  Her face was the tree’s top; only her beauty remains.”

Daphne becomes a laurel tree.  Thus the laurel tree becomes sacred to Apollo, who wears its leaves as a crown.  Now that I think of it, it seems sad that laurel leaves were worn as a symbol of victory.  It was not a victory for Daphne.  Or was it?  Rather than submit to Apollo, she made her own choice and became a tree instead.  But her life was forever changed and there was no turning back.

Posted in Keats, myth, Waterhouse | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Burne-Jones representations of Nimue

Le Morte d’Arthur captivated Edward Burne-Jones. His passion for all things Arthurian dated back to his days as an undergraduate at Oxford, when he and close friend William Morris would read the tales together.  Burne-Jones painted Arthurian subjects several times in his career, including the famous The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon.

Merlin was infatuated with Nimue.  Unfortunately for him, he taught her the very magic that she later used to imprison him.

'Merlin and Nimue', Sir Edward Burne-Jones

‘Merlin and Nimue’, Sir Edward Burne-Jones

In his 1861 painting Merlin and Nimue, Burne-Jones used Fanny Cornforth as a model. As Nimue, she turns her back on Merlin as he falls prey to her spell.  I don’t think he saw Fanny as ‘evil’, even though she wasn’t considered respectable due to her past as a prostitute and the fact that she was Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s lover. But it is interesting to note that when he depicted Nimue in this work, he didn’t opt for his usual androgynous beauty.  Kirsty Stonell Walker has an interesting post about body types and Burne-Jones paintings of Fanny.

His painting of Nimue in The Beguiling of Merlin is more personal.  Here he uses his own personal “Nimue”, Mary Zambaco.  Burne-Jones and Zambaco had an affair that ended with an ugly and embarrassing public scene. In happier days, he had painted Zambaco as his ideal beauty in his Pygmalion series.  In the bitterness that often accompanies the end of an affair, he now painted her as the scheming, evil Nimue as she ensnares Merlin in the hawthorne tree.

'The Beguiling of Merlin', Sir Edward Burne-Jones

‘The Beguiling of Merlin’, Sir Edward Burne-Jones

 

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Sorrow and Sunflowers

'Clytie', Evelyn De Morgan

‘Clytie’, Evelyn De Morgan

Clytie was a beautiful water nymph who loved the sun god Apollo (Helios).  Apollo, however, didn’t return her love.  The rejected Clytie could not move on and her love for Apollo grew into obsession.  She remained in one spot, staring at the sun as her unrequited love guided it across the sky each day in his chariot.  Never eating or drinking, her only nourishment came from her own tears as her face followed the sun.

Eventually her legs formed roots and her face transformed into a sunflower, forever following the sun.

At some point in our lives, have we all been Clytie?  Rooted in place, unable to move on? Allowing someone or something to change who we are?

Myths may seem to be archaic tropes, but dust them off  and there’s timeless wisdom.  Clytie is a cautionary tale and the sunflower should be embraced as a symbol of what can happen when we become rooted in unhealthy ideas we can’t let go of — not growing into ourselves, but into something else completely.  Are sunflowers a symbol of Clytie’s sorrow, then?  Not necessarily.  I say they are symbols of hope.  We can look at them and say “Not me.  Not today.  I am moving forward.”

'Clytie', Frederic Leighton

‘Clytie’, Frederic Leighton

She wasted away, deranged by her experience of love. Impatient of the nymphs, night and day, under the open sky, she sat dishevelled, bareheaded, on the bare earth. Without food or water, fasting, for nine days, she lived only on dew and tears, and did not stir from the ground. She only gazed at the god’s aspect as he passed, and turned her face towards him. They say that her limbs clung to the soil, and that her ghastly pallor changed part of her appearance to that of a bloodless plant: but part was reddened, and a flower hid her face. She turns, always, towards the sun; though her roots hold her fast, her love remains unaltered. (Ovid,Metamorphoses IV:256-273)

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Book review: That Summer by Lauren Willig

thatsummer

That Summer was tremendous fun to read, especially if you have an interest in the Pre-Raphaelites.  Lauren Willig adroitly weaves together two tales that take place in two different time periods:  one in 1849, the other in 2009.

In 2009, Julia Conley unexpectedly inherits a house outside of London.  Herne Hill is a family home that she hasn’t visited since the death of her mother when Julia was only six years old.  Dealing with the house isn’t something she relishes and neither are the perplexing memories that are now rising to the surface.  Julia is forced to deal with emotions she long avoided and discuss with her father the one subject they’ve always ignored:  her mother.  When Julia finds a hidden Pre-Raphaelite painting in an old wardrobe, she realizes the house holds more secrets than she realized.

In 1849, Imogen Grantham and her husband Arthur live in a loveless marriage in his family home, Herne Hill.  Arthur is a collector of medieval antiquities and his collection draws interest from a group of young artists, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Gavin Thorne.  Gavin is hired to paint Imogen’s portrait and the bond they form will change the Grantham family forever.

I enjoyed That Summer, both for the Victorian story of Imogen and Gavin and for the modern tale of Julia.  Julia’s story is peppered with delightful pop culture references and her efforts to track down information about her Pre-Raphaelite painting rang true since she starts her journey where most of us would:  Google and Wikipedia.  The juxtaposition of Julia’s modern life with the world of the Granthams makes That Summer a delightful story of the same family home seen in two vastly different eras.

Visit the author’s website:  Lauren Willig

In the U.S., you can purchase That Summer: A Novel on Amazon.com
In the UK, you can purchase That Summer on Amazon.co.uk

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Rossetti’s Day Dream

One of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s last paintings shows Jane Morris in a world of green.  She’s surrounded by foliage, seemingly lost in a day dream while her book lies ignored on her lap.  Her hand loosely holds a honeysuckle.

'The Day Dream', Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1880)

‘The Day Dream’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1880)

proserpine

‘Proserpine’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

'Astarte Syriaca', Dante Gabriel Rossetti

‘Astarte Syriaca’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Jane is possibly clad in the same dress she wore in Proserpine, where she is again seen both wearing and surrounded by green. A similar garment can also be seen in Astarte Syriaca, although it is more loosely draped and her bare shoulders are exposed.

Rossetti wrote a sonnet to accompany The Day Dream (read here in full).  The poem ends  She dreams ; till now on her forgotten book/Drops the forgotten blossom from her hand.  The poem and picture are obviously about the woman lost in her day dream, but Rossetti’s obsessive use of Jane Morris in his paintings makes me question whether or not the title refers to Jane as the subject of his own daily thoughts and dreams. Perhaps the painting is not of a woman day dreaming, but showing us the fixation of the artist’s own day dream. To paraphrase his sister Christina Rossetti’s poem, perhaps we see Jane here not as she is, but as she fills his dream. (In an Artists’s Studio).

In the study for The Day Dream, we can focus on Jane’s face.  This is the face that captivated Rossetti from the moment he spotted her in the theatre audience in Oxford, the face that has become representative of Rossetti’s body of work.

Study for 'The Day Dream'

Study for ‘The Day Dream’

“How nice it would be if I could feel sure I had painted you once and for all so as to let the world know what you were, but every new thing I do from you is a disappointment, and it is only at some odd moment when I cannot set about it that I see by a flash the way it ought to be done,” Rossetti wrote to Jane. She was an important part of Rossetti’s later years and each painting can be seen as an attempt to capture some inexplicable quality that is the key to their relationship.  Perhaps each work is a different “day dream”, if we look at day dreams as a way to explore our subconscious. This article, What Your Daydreams Reveal About You, discusses day dreams as a way to understand ourselves, set goals and improve our lives.  Seen in this psychological context, the title of Rossetti’s painting takes on a deeper meaning. Jane Morris, as Rossetti’s muse, became the catalyst for “day dreams” that inspired some of his greatest masterpieces.  Through his work, he may not have been exploring not only Jane’s face, but what she meant to him and why.

'Rossetti working on "The Day Dream" ' by Frederic Shields

‘Rossetti working on “The Day Dream” ‘ by Frederic Shields

 

Posted in Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Jane Burden Morris | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Wombat Friday: Ruth Herbert, Pre-Raphaelite Stunner

wombat-ruthherbert

“The beautiful Miss Herbert, then acting at the St. James Theatre, used to come sometimes to sit to Watts, and the younger men, if they were there, would gather round her and make studies also. Echoes of their admiration reached us young people, to whom theatres were things unknown, and once we were shewn a small water-colour made by Gabriel of her, radiant in golden hair, – – just the head and throat on an emerald-green background– and deeply did we feel the tribute rendered to her beauty when we read the names which he had written around the four sides of the little picture: “BEATRICE HELEN GUENEVERE HERBERT”. I first saw this lady one evening in the early days of our marriage, at the house of friends and ours, Mr. and Mrs. Street, and then after many years we met again in Rottingdean, when Miss Herbert drove out from Brighton and she and my husband shook hands across the gulf of time. Her grace and dignity of bearing remained very striking, and I do not think there could have been a shock on either side, for both still visibly carried the marks of their distinguishing gifts–of power and of beauty. (The Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, volume I by Georgiana Burne-Jones)

Ruth Herbert was a Victorian actress who was drawn frequently by artists in the Pre-Raphaelite circle.  Dante Gabriel Rossetti used her features a great deal and once wrote to William Bell Scott while waiting for her arrival:

I am in the stunning position this morning of expecting the actual visit at 1/2 past 11 of a model whom I have been longing to paint for years — Miss Herbert of the Olympic Theatre– who has the most varied and highest expression I ever saw in a woman’s face, besides abundant beauty, golden hair, etc. Did you ever see her? O my eye! she has sat to me now and will sit to me for Mary Magdalene in the picture I am beginning. Such luck!

'Head of a Woman Called Ruth Herbert', Dante Gabriel Rossetti

‘Head of a Woman Called Ruth Herbert’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

This drawing by Rossetti is of Fanny Cornforth and George Boyce, but Ruth Herbert’s portrait can be seen on the wall:

george boyce fanny cornforth

Mary Elizabeth Braddon, author of Lady Audley’s Secret, declared Ruth Herbert’s performance of Lady Audley to be her favorite. Incidentally, Lady Audley’s Secret is a must-read for Pre-Raphaelite fans.  The description of Lady Audley’s portrait in the book is definitely inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites and the plot itself is an exploration of gender, class and identity. See Pre-Raphaelite References: Lady Audley’s Secret. 

We live in the age of Instagram, where actresses and reality-tv-starlets pepper our news feeds.  In a world where you can be famous without actual talent or achievement, it’s nice to glimpse an actress of a bygone time.  An actress whose features we might never see or whose name we might not hear of had she not captured the fancy of several Pre-Raphaelite artists and their friends.  Here’s to you, Ruth Herbert.

Portrait of Ruth herbert by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Portrait of Ruth herbert by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

 

Also see Kirsty Stonell Walker’s post about Miss Herbert, Ruth-less, at The Kissed Mouth.

Follow #WombatFriday at the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood Facebook page or Twitter.

 

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Love, Death and Potted Plants

'Isabella and the Pot of Basil', William Holman Hunt

‘Isabella and the Pot of Basil’, William Holman Hunt

William Holman Hunt’s Isabella and the Pot of Basil is currently in the news with the recent announcement that the Delaware Art museum will be auctioning the painting tomorrow.  The work has been in their collection since 1947 and it is sad news indeed that the Delaware has to sell it and three other works in order to pay a $19.8 million construction debt.  I was shocked when I first read the news that they would part with Isabella, which is one of the treasures in their Pre-Raphaelite collection.  Kirsty Stonell Walker has just written a particularly brilliant post about the auction that I encourage you to read.

Isabella is an example of absorbing grief and is based on the narrative poem by John Keats. Isabella, the daughter of an affluent family, is in love with one of their servants, Lorenzo.  Her brothers, having planned for Isabella to make a financially advantageous marriage, decide that swift action must be taken to stop Lorenzo and Isabella.  They murder Lorenzo.  His ghost later appears to Isabella and he leads her to his buried body.  She digs him up, removes his head and buries it in a pot of basil.  She then cares for the pot of basil obsessively, pining away and consumed with grief.

Hunt’s painting is not the only Pre-Raphaelite work featuring Keats’ Isabella.  John Everett Millais painted his version, Lorenzo and Isabella,  in the early days of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  So early, in fact, that the initials PRB were not yet known to the public.  Millais chose not to focus solely on Isabella and the basil, but created a group scene in which she is seen dining with her family prior to the murderous act.

'Lorenzo and Isabella', Sir John Everett Millais

‘Lorenzo and Isabella’, Sir John Everett Millais

If you look closely at Isabella’s chair, you’ll see that Millais included the initials PRB.  At that time, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a secret group.  It has been suggested that the meaning of the PRB was later leaked by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

millais-prb-isabella

Isabella has also been painted by artists who weren’t members of the Brotherhood, but were inspired by them and can be considered Pre-Raphaelite in style.
John Melhuish Strudwick:

strudwick-isabella

John White Alexander:

alexander-isabella

John William Waterhouse:

waterhouse-isabella-basil

George Henry Grenville Manton:

George Henry Grenville Manton - Isabella

 

One thing that draws me to Pre-Raphaelite art is this juxtaposition of something ugly with something beautiful.  Grief, death, sorrow are shown through gorgeous imagery and vibrant colors.  The notion that Isabella has severed her deceased lover’s head in order to keep him close is something that we should find disturbing.  Yet when looking at artistic depictions of Isabella, we are not repulsed. It is the haunting beauty and sadness we see and not the gruesome nature of her act.
And she forgot the stars, the moon, and sun,
And she forgot the blue above the trees,
And she forgot the dells where waters run,
And she forgot the chilly autumn breeze;
She had no knowledge when the day was done,
And the new morn she saw not: but in peace
Hung over her sweet Basil evermore,
And moisten’d it with tears unto the core

isabella-detail

Posted in George Henry Grenville Manton, John Melhuish Strudwick, John White Alexander, Keats, Millais, News, Waterhouse, William Holman Hunt | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Aurora

'Aurora', Sir Edward Burne-Jones

‘Aurora’, Sir Edward Burne-Jones

A small pocket-book of this time contains a note made by Edward from a canal-bridge in a poor quarter of the city, which nearly thirty years afterwards he developed into the background of his “Aurora”.  The main outlines of building and canal are preserved in the picture, and Aurora with her cymbals comes lightly stepping along a waterside path from which in the original sketch a woman stoops to bathe her baby, but the canal has changed into an arm of a river and the houses have been welded into the long, low storage-places of a wharf, crowned by a great church lifted up against the sky.  He enjoyed making up stories to himself about his backgrounds, as he painted them; and one day as he was working on “Aurora” he did a very unusual thing, for the humour seized him to think aloud, and he spun out a whole history of the place, “You see the city gets poorer as it gets toward the church,” he said,”which makes it more interesting–the rich people have gone to live further off.  It has had many epochs: first the Roman–you may see remains of that in the foundations: then was an oligarchic government, following on a time of anarchy and disaster, that put up many fine buildings, and some of them still remain.  Then came an epoch of trade, capricious and varying in locality, that produced the strangest results on its architecture, one part of the town cutting out another by setting up nearer the sea further down the river, then being driven back again for reasons that can’t be found out now–traces of prosperity and decay succeeding each other.” (written by Georgiana Burne-Jones in Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, vol. I)

Although the background was taken from a canal in Oxford, you can definitely see the influence from Burne-Jones’ trips to Italy as well.  In mythology, Aurora personifies the dawn and is seen here using her cymbals to awaken the city to a new day.  For comparison, you can see Evelyn De Morgan’s painting of Aurora’s Greek counterpart:  Eos.

 

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A Friday the 13th #WombatFriday

wombat-friday-lunaThis week, Wombat Friday falls on Friday the 13th AND a full moon.  Our wombat hero visits Luna by Sir Edward Burne-Jones.

You can follow the weekly #wombatfriday madness on Twitter (here’s the #wombatfriday hashtag link; you can follow me on Twitter as @beguilingmerlin). If you are a Facebook user, connect with me on the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood page.

New to Wombat Friday?  

How Wombat Friday began

Kirsty Stonell Walker’s post gives an excellent explanation about Wombat Friday and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s obsession with wombats.

And for critics of Wombat Friday:  The Defence of Wombat Friday

wombat-rossetti-book

Jane Morris and wombat, drawn by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Jane Morris and wombat, drawn by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

 "Do you know the wombat at the Zoo?" asked Rossetti; "a delightful creature -- the most comical little beast." (Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, Vol. I)


“Do you know the wombat at the Zoo?” asked Rossetti; “a delightful creature — the most comical little beast.” (Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, Vol. I)

 

 

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The Mirror of Venus

'The Mirror of Venus', Sir Edward Burne-Jones

‘The Mirror of Venus’, Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Burne-Jones’ painting The Mirror of Venus is a celebration of female beauty.  Ten women, often identified as Venus and her attendants, gather around their own watery reflections.  The landscape is no rival for their beauty — it’s a bleak land that was described by author Christopher Wood as ‘strangely lunar’.

The painting doesn’t offer us any details as far as story or background are concerned.  What are they doing exactly?  We are able to see most of their reflections, which presents a magnificent example of doubling (something I personally enjoy in art).  Not all of them seek their own image, though. The beauty directly to the right of Venus gazes not at herself, but at her companion.

'The Mirror of venus' detail

‘The Mirror of Venus’ detail

As enigmatic as this painting is, there’s definitely a story here.  Or perhaps Burne-Jones has just provided us with the beginning of a story, the rest of which we must imagine on our own.

 

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Ophelia’s Flowers

When John Everett Millais painted Ophelia he chose to depict her in the moments just before she drowns, a bold choice as most previous artists portrayed Ophelia before she ever enters the water.  This isn’t the only striking aspect of his painting, however.  In the midst of this picture of death, the plant life is rich and colorful.  Each plant, whether in background or foreground, is given equal attention and no detail is spared.  The botanical aspects of Ophelia are so important that Millais chose to paint the background prior to adding in the figure, which was a very unusual move.

'Ophelia' (1852) John Everett Millais. Model: Elizabeth Siddal

‘Ophelia’ (1852) John Everett Millais. Model: Elizabeth Siddal

 

Throughout  Hamlet, Ophelia is constantly mistreated and used. Prior to the action of the play, Hamlet and Ophelia are in love.  After seeing his father’s ghost, Hamlet decides to distance himself from her as he plots revenge for his father’s murder.  When Hamlet kills Ophelia’s father, Polonius, she loses her sanity.  Even though she appears quite mad, the flowers she gives to the King, Queen and Laertes have pointed meanings that would have been obvious to Shakespeare’s audience.

Ophelia:  “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray you, love, remember: and there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.”

Laertes:  “A document in madness,–thought and remembrance fitted.”

Ophelia:  “There’s fennel for you, and columbines:–there’s rue for you; and here’s some for me:–we may call it herb-grace o’Sundays:–O you must wear your rue with a difference.–There’s a daisy:–I would give you some violets, but they wither’d all when my father died:–they say he made a good end. ” [Sings] “For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy–“

The scene contains no stage direction, but it is generally accepted that Ophelia hands the flowers out.

To her brother Laertes, rosemary and pansies. For remembrance and thought, both of which are probably alluding to their slain father.

To King Claudius, fennel and columbines. Fennel for flattery. Columbine may mean ingratitude. Fennel was also believed to cast away evil spirits.  Perhaps Ophelia was suggesting that Claudius was evil.

To Queen Gertrude, rue and daisy. Rue for repentance.  Is the queen to wear hers with a difference because she shows no repentance for her previous husband’s death?  Daisy for faithlessness.   See Ophelia’s End:  Does She Hand Out the Flowers? 

In addition to the flowers mentioned in Hamlet, Millais added other flowers with symbolic meaning.  Forget-me-nots are visible on the bank.  A red poppy floats near Ophelia’s hand, a symbol of sleep and death.  Despite her saying that there were no violets, we can see she wears a necklace of them.  Fritillary, symbols of sorrow, also appear.

In Act 4, Scene 5 we hear Queen Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s death.  Again, plants play an important role.

QUEEN GERTRUDE: There is a willow grows aslant a brook,

That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;

There with fantastic garlands did she come

Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples

That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,

But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them:

There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds

Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;

When down her weedy trophies and herself

Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;

And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:

Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;

As one incapable of her own distress,

Or like a creature native and indued

Unto that element: but long it could not be

Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,

Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay

To muddy death.

And so Ophelia dies, alone with her flowers.  Gertrude describes her as ‘mermaid like’ as if in attempt to beautify the ugliness of death.

Study of Elizabeth Siddal for the head of 'Ophelia'.

Study of Elizabeth Siddal for the head of ‘Ophelia’.

Millais used Elizabeth Siddal as the model for Ophelia.  You can read more about her uncomfortable experience posing for the painting on the Ophelia page of my site LizzieSiddal.com.  Millais set up a series of oil lamps under a bathtub in order to keep the water she posed in a comfortable temperature.  The lamps did not last, however, and Siddal posed for hours in the cold, never saying a word.  This led to illness and the threat of a lawsuit from her father.  Siddal later married fellow Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti; she died of a Laudanum overdose two years after their marriage.

It is a macabre coincidence that a poppy floats so close to Siddal’s hand in Ophelia.  After her death, Rossetti painted Beata Beatrix as a posthumous tribute.  A dove delivers a poppy (from which Opium is derived) into her hand.  Laudanum is a mixture of opiates and alcohol.

Beata Beatrix, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Beata Beatrix, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

“… pray you, love, remember…”

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