The potent symbolism in Millais’ portraits of women

To celebrate our new release of John Everett Millais’ ‘The Bridesmaid’ print, produced in partnership with The Fitzwilliam Museum, we take a look at the painting’s spellbinding symbolism alongside another of his iconic works, ‘Ophelia’.

‘The Bridesmaid’, 1851, Sir John Everett Millais

The Bridesmaid, 1851

Small though the original is (measuring just 27.9 cm x 20.3 cm), ‘The Bridesmaid’ is full of symbols that offer clues about the story of its heroine.

Depicted with a distracted, far-off gaze and enclosed in a mane of flaming orange hair, Millais’ model delicately holds a small piece of wedding cake over a golden wedding ring (detail below).

Such folkloric signs suggestive of rituals performed on St Agnes’ Eve would not have been missed by Victorian audiences. Traditionally held annually on January 20th, the ritual involved girls and unmarried women who wished to see a vision of their future husbands before going to bed.

In Victorian society, a woman’s worth was often tethered to youth, chastity, and material wealth. Attached to the model’s chest is an orange blossom corsage – a symbol of female purity and marriage (detail below). 

Detail of the wedding cake and wedding ring in ‘The Bridesmaid’, 1851, Sir John Everett Millais
Detail of the orange blossom corsage in ‘The Bridesmaid’, 1851, Sir John Everett Millais

Disrupting the symmetrical composition, the phallic silver sugar caster carries sexual overtones too, perhaps symbolising her future husband (detail below).

Many critics have suggested the model’s mesmerising gaze suggests fear, as the ornate objects surrounding her serve as visual reminders of her confined existence.

Detail of the sugar caster in ‘The Bridesmaid’, 1851, Sir John Everett Millais

Ophelia, 1851 – 52

Though there were many renditions of Ophelia in Victorian art, literature and poetry, few are as compelling as Millais’ reimagining of the offstage scene from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

The Pre-Raphaelite’s romantic depiction of the death of Ophelia captures the poignant despair she felt for the loss of her father at the hands of her beloved, Hamlet. 

Surrounded by a blanket of vivid green natural flora, Ophelia is peaceful in her surroundings, yet her chilling stare and delicate floating hands demand further attention.

‘Ophelia’, 1951-2, Sir John Everett Millais

The blue of the water grows cooler in tone as it engulfs her intricately detailed dress, almost threatening to swallow her entirely.

The pansies that drift from Ophelia’s bouquet as she floats downstream represent unrequited love, while the delicate pink rosebud that rests beside her blushed and bluing cheek, signifies beauty and purity (detail below).

The red poppy that floats above her sinking waist represents death, and the violets – worn in a chain around her neck – signify faithfulness (detail below).

Detail of pansies in ‘Ophelia’ 1951-2, Sir John Everett Millais
Red poppy's in ‘Ophelia’, 1951-2, Sir John Everett Millais

Ophelia’s inward stare, glazed eyes and parted lips, show Millais’ astounding ability to convey the emotional anguish of his subject. The same level of perception can be seen in The Bridesmaid, both of whom bear a similar expression, as they each confront their fates.

Ophelia with pink rosebud and violet chain in ‘Ophelia’, 1951-2, John Everett Millais

Empowering women

Through Millais’ empathetic depiction of women in ‘The Bridesmaid’ and ‘Ophelia’, he opened a conversation around the female position within Victorian patriarchal society. 

With many Victorian marriages resembling a business transaction rather than love, women often found themselves in an unhappy union. Losing the few rights they held whilst single, Victorian women in wedlock were legally bound to hand over their inheritance and lose ownership of their wages. Through his affecting painting Millais beautifully illuminates the subservient position of Victorian women.

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