Each week, we bring you the backstory of a work featured in our collection, written by a member of our curatorial team. 

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by Sara Robertson, Curator

Sometimes the story behind how a work of art is made is just as compelling as the narrative the artwork tells. In our recent gallery featuring John Everett Millais, one of his most well-known paintings has an interesting back story that was taxing on all those involved.

Ophelia—painted in 1815, and based off of the character in Shakespeare’s epic tale, Hamlet—is a part of the permanent collection at the Tate Britain. While the painting is beautiful, and considered one of Britain’s most beloved works by the artist, the preparation involved those 200 years ago was anything but seamless.

Millais was a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of artists who considered the realistic depiction of nature to be of utmost importance in their work. Because of this, Millais spent up to 11 hours a day studying and sketching by the banks of the Hogsmill River in Surrey, England. The results of this dedication are stunning in the finished painting—but Millais did suffer for his art.

In this excerpt from one of the letter’s written to his brother, Millais described the trials and tribulations involved in making this masterpiece:

“My martyrdom is more trying than any I have hitherto experienced. The flies of Surrey are more muscular, and have a still greater propensity for probing human flesh … I am threatened with a notice to appear before a magistrate for trespassing in a field and destroying the hay … am also in danger of being blown by the wind into the water, and becoming intimate with the feelings of Ophelia when that Lady sank to muddy death…”

Not only did Millais suffer, but as did the model who posed for the painting. Elizabeth Siddal, who was the wife of a fellow Pre-Raphaelite, lay in a bathtub for hours in order for Millais to correctly depict the floating Ophelia. At one point, the water was so cold that Siddal grew ill and had to be hospitalized.

Then there is the case of the vanishing water vole. Millais’s first unveiling of Ophelia included an image of the European water vole, a rodent similar to a large rat, swimming next to the floating girl. The first people to see the painting couldn’t figure out what the small creature was supposed to be. As the story goes, in fact, there were guesses as to what the animal was, and none were correct. Millais eventually erased the water vole completely from the composition, but it can still be seen in these preparatory sketches and underdrawings.