Ophelia, painted by John Everett Millais, is one of the most popular paintings in the Tate’s collection, and almost always on display. (Supplied: Tate)
Two bona fide superstars of British art will travel to Canberra this summer: Ophelia and The Lady of Shalott.
Key exhibition info:
- 43 paintings from the Tate Britain collection
- 40 paintings from other British and Australian collections
- Co-curated by the Tate’s Carol Jacobi and the National Gallery of Australia’s Lucina Ward
- Opens December 14 at NGA, Canberra
- Exclusive to Canberra
The paintings, on loan from the London’s Tate, will headline the National Gallery of Australia’s exhibition Love and Desire: Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces from the Tate.
Such is their popularity with Tate visitors, the pair have never been loaned at the same time. Neither has previously been exhibited in Australia.
They will be supplemented by 41 other works from the Tate’s 19th-century collection and 40 from other British and Australian collections, in what NGA director Nick Mitzevich describes as an “unprecedented” showcase of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.
Describing the popularity of Millais’s painting, Tate director Maria Balshaw said: “People come up the front steps and ask our visitor attendants ‘Where is Ophelia?'” (Supplied: National Gallery of Australia/Russell Agro)
Details of the exhibition were announced at the Tate Britain on Wednesday, 170 years ago to the month since the ‘secret society’ of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed, just a couple of suburbs over, in Fitzrovia.
It was here, at the Gower Street dwellings of painter John Everett Millais, that Britain’s first modern art movement was forged, with fellow art school rebels William “Mad” Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
The mission? To make art that was authentic to life — in subject matter and appearance.
What’s in a name?
- “Pre-Raphaelite” does not denote the period that Millais et al were painting
- Rather, it denotes their preference for work from the medieval and early-Renaissance periods — ie before the style established by Renaissance painter Raphael
- The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were in fact fans of Raphael’s work — but not those who copied him.
The Brotherhood were responding to industrialisation, an emerging working class and changing social mores, and reacting against the aesthetic that had dominated British art for several decades.
Their alternative married the poetic ideal of “romantic love” and the potent sexual yearnings of youth with a realist style of painting — painting in high definition, if you will.
Nowhere is this realism more apparent than in Millais’ Ophelia, painted with painstaking attention to detail over many months in which the artist worked outdoors, on the banks of the Hogsmill river, and indoors, with model (and fellow artist) Elizabeth Siddall lying submerged in a bath, dressed in a waterlogged wedding gown that he had purchased for four pounds, specifically for the occasion.
Speaking of the intricacy of the work, Tate curator Carol Jacobi, co-curating Love and Desire with NGA’s Lucina Ward, said it “invites you to step up quite close — you want to be as close as the artist was when he was painting it”.
Rebels and outsiders
Millais’s Ophelia is characteristic of the Pre-Raphaelite painters’ interest in portraying “the predicament of the individual who is against society”, says Jacobi.
The painting’s subject is a shocking “off-stage” moment from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (popular with Victorian audiences of the time) in which the Prince’s one-time sweetheart, driven to madness by Hamlet’s cruelty, wanders fully clothed into the river, and drowns.
Jacobi says, “I think for Millais, Ophelia represented a young person who was caught between family conflicts, political ambitions and the decadent world.”
The Pre-Raphaelites could identify with the experience: they married for love, rather than money or status; and their provocative paintings cost them socially and financially in the early years.
In fact, as hard as it is to imagine now, Ophelia was controversial when it was painted (1851); at this early stage, critics and audiences were scathing of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.
“It was an incredibly courageous painting,” says Jacobi. Millais had been a prodigy (he entered the Royal Academy art school at the age of 11) and somewhat of a darling of the establishment. “He was thought of as British art’s great hope.” That made his fall from grace even greater, when he joined up with art school drop-out Rossetti and struggling student Holman Hunt.
Most paintings of Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott depict the episode where the imprisoned woman falls for the knight Lancelot; John William Waterhouse, however, chose to paint her escape.
(Supplied: Tate )
The story of Millais’ Ophelia has become entangled with the story of Siddall, partly because of her tragic death at 33 from a laudanum overdose.
Discovered by aspiring Pre-Raphaelite Walter Deverell when she was working in a hat shop, she was a “muse” for many pre-Raphaelite painters — not least her husband-to-be, Rossetti (with whom she had a troubled marriage, his infidelities spurring on her bouts of depression).
Siddall’s lean, red-headed beauty, exalted by these painters in contradiction of the voluptuous, angelic blondes that had hitherto dominated art, presented a new kind of ideal: stronger and less fettered by hair-pins and corsetry.
And like many of the models who graced Pre-Raphaelite paintings, Siddall was far more than just a muse: she was a poet and painter in her own right.
Jane Morris, another of Rossetti’s “muses” (and later, mistress) was instrumental in the Arts and Crafts movement, and Christina Rossetti (the painter’s sister) was a poet of great acclaim.
Jacobi describes the women in the Pre-Raphaelite circle as independent-minded: many went on to be involved in the women’s suffrage movement; Christina Rossetti wrote in sardonic style of the disjunction between her brother’s vision of his muse and the reality.
“These women were living real lives; they were often difficult lives,” says Jacobi. “Just simply childbirth was pretty dangerous. Elizabeth Siddall had a miscarriage and never really recovered; Fanny Waugh died after childbirth.
“And I think the tragic aspect of those kinds of things — also loving where you’re not loved, or not being able to be with the person you loved — the women often had the role of enacting the difficulties, the suffering [and] the quandaries of life in [the Pre-Raphaelite] paintings.”
Love and Desire: Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces from the Tate opens December 14 at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
The writer travelled to London as a guest of the National Gallery of Australia.