In the first of this pair of articles looking at paintings of Ophelia from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, I showed works from Benjamin West’s in the late eighteenth century, through the most famous painting of Ophelia by Millais in 1851-52, up to 1889. What happened then is surprising: as narrative painting entered its decline into the twentieth century, depictions of Ophelia became still more frequent.
Even the academic painter of nudes Jules LeFebvre tackled her inner turmoil and grief, in his Ophelia from 1890. Notable here is his attention to the detail of her hair, as well as the Morning Glory flowers adorning it. These flowers were apparently associated with unrequited love and mortality.
Henrietta Rae, by coincidence another established painter of nudes, returns to the same early scene in the play as painted by West and Rossetti, when Ophelia’s madness first became manifest. (I apologise for the poor quality of this image.)
Rae shows Ophelia in Act 4 Scene 5, as she scatters flowers and herbs while reciting their names and symbols in front of King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, saying:
There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love,
remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.
There’s fennel for you, and columbines. There’s rue for you,
and here’s some for me. We may call it herb of grace o’ Sundays.
O, you must wear your rue with a difference! There’s a daisy. I
would give you some violets, but they wither’d all when my father
died. They say he made a good end.
For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy.
Most surprising of all is Paul Albert Steck’s Ophelia from about 1894 for its unusual sub-aquatic setting. In common with the image of the drowned woman, there is a profound calm, a grace in the streamlines of the weeds, her dress and hair, and a dreadful finality in the last bubbles of air rising to the surface. To accomplish this, Steck transforms Shakespeare’s brook into a deep lake.
Harold Copping’s illustration of Ophelia drowning, Hamlet, Act IV, scene 7 from 1897 appears to have been influenced by Millais’ earlier painting.
Ophelia and her story came to be something of an obsession with John William Waterhouse, who featured her in at least three finished paintings, and who made reference in another.
Waterhouse’s Ophelia from 1889 shows her lying in the midst of wild flowers in a wood, with no water in sight.
A second painting completed in 1894 puts her beside water, although its surface is well covered by water lilies. Rather than climbing a willow tree, she here sits on an ancient pollard overhanging the water, apparently in a state of distraction.
Waterhouse later painted a couple of studies which are thought to show Ophelia indoors at an earlier moment in the play. These he developed not into a third painting of Ophelia, but his Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May (1908), which refers to the opening lines of Robert Herrick’s poem To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time:
“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.”
In his third and last painting of Ophelia in 1910, Waterhouse shows her looking distraught as she steadies herself on an old pollarded willow on the bank of a small river. The artist adds two other women at the upper right, who are crossing a wooden bridge in the distance.
In 1900, the French Naturalist artist Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret painted his version of Ophelia. As with these other paintings of her from the turn of the century, he captures her madness and grief very effectively, but with little in the way of narrative.
Odilon Redon’s pastel of Ophelia from 1900-5 shows her in a lily pond, presumably just after her suicide. The contrast between this and Waterhouse’s paintings could not be more stark. Redon shows her from an unusual point of view looking down from above, and with more than a touch of Japonisme, vibrant colour, and varied forms in the plants.
Ophelia is also referenced in some more unusual paintings, with which I will conclude.
The figures and scenes in Thomas Stothard’s unusual composite of Shakespearean Characters (1813) include (from the left) Twelfth Night (Olivia, Malvolio, Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek), The Merry Wives of Windsor (Falstaff and friends), As You Like It (Celia and Rosalind), The Tempest (Prospero and Miranda), King Lear (Lear and Cordelia), Hamlet (Ophelia and Hamlet), and Macbeth (Macbeth and the witches).
The Polish master Jacek Malczewski includes the figure of Ophelia in his Polish Hamlet – Portrait of Aleksander Wielopolski from 1903, an incisive political commentary on the career of Aleksander Ignacy Jan-Kanty Wielopolski (1803-1877), who was head of Poland’s civil administration under the Russian Empire, from 1862 to 1863. An aristocrat and conservative, he was sent to London to try to obtain the assistance of the British government during the 1831 November Uprising in Poland. He then wrote a controversial letter responding to the Galician massacres in 1845, and tried to stop the growing Polish national movement in 1863. However, in forcing the conscription of young Polish men into the Russian Army, he provoked the January Uprising of 1863, which forced him to flee into exile in Dresden.
I believe that Wielopolski is here shown in the role of Hamlet, with Ophelia at the left and Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, at the right; the two women represent the Polish nation, which must be something of a first for the Danish Ophelia.
My last painting is another reference to Ophelia and her drowning in a most unusual painting by Enrique Simonet Lombardo, which was a great success at the Salon in Paris in 1895.
The Autopsy, also known as Anatomy of the Heart; She had a Heart! (1890), shows a young woman who has drowned herself. The painting asks whether this woman was an Ophelia, trapped in an impossible situation, or one of the many ‘fallen women’ who decided to end her life with one final fall.
Shakespeare’s Ophelia has certainly had a remarkable life in paintings.