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Ophelia was the daughter of Polonius from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. Although loved by Hamlet, Ophelia ignores and eventually betrays him. Then descending into madness by the death of her father, she is depicted here singing before she drowns in a river. Ophelia’s pose (her open arms and upwards gaze) resembles traditional portrayals of saints and martyrs. The painting is known for its depiction of the detailed flora of the river and the riverbank, stressing the patterns of growth and decay in a natural ecosystem. The flowers shown floating on the river were chosen to correspond with Shakespeare’s description of Ophelia’s garland. However, they also reflect the Victorian interest in the “language of flowers”, according to which each flower carries a symbolic meaning. The prominent red poppy (not mentioned by Shakespeare’s description of the scene) represents sleep and death.

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Sir John Everett Millais
66.5 x 50cm
26.25" x 19.75"

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