Exploring an Artwork that Teems With Life and Loss

A visually rich painting rooted in literature

Christopher P Jones
7 min readFeb 12, 2024


Ophelia (1851) by John Everett Millais. Oil on canvas. 76.2 × 111.80 cm. Tate, London. Image source Wikimedia Commons

The story behind this distinctive painting has become legendary in the annals of art history.

To recreate the watery scene, British artist John Everett Millais persuaded his model Elizabeth Siddal to pose fully clothed while submerged in a bathtub brimming with water.

It was the middle of winter.

In an attempt to keep the bath water warm, Millais placed oil lamps beneath the tub. Their effect was negligible: Siddal caught pneumonia from the chilling water and came close to dying, which in turn prompted her father to raise a complaint against the artist with a threat of £50 damages. In the end, Millais covered the cost of her medical bills and she made a full recovery.

The underlying thrust of the story is Millais’ determination to complete his painting with the utmost fidelity to every detail.

The result is a painting that not only combines the power of literature with artistic invention, but also finds abundant life in the throes of death.

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