Paintings of William Shakespeare’s Plays 15: Hamlet 2

John Everett Millais (1829–1896), Ophelia (detail) (1851-2), oil on canvas, 76.2 x 111.8 cm, Tate Britain, London. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the first of these three articles covering paintings of Shakespeare’s greatest play, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, I outlined the plot around a selection of paintings of several of the scenes. However, by far the most popular scene shown in paintings is one which never appears on stage: the death of Ophelia, which Shakespeare only describes in the words of Queen Gertrude. This is extremely unusual in narrative paintings, in trying to depict events which are left to the imagination of the play’s audience. In this case, it has brought several outstanding works of art.

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), The Death of Ophelia (1838), oil on canvas, 37.9 x 45.9 cm, Neue Pinakothek, Munich, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

It was Eugène Delacroix who first seems to have realised the visual potential in Ophelia’s drowning. His first painting of The Death of Ophelia in 1838 follows Queen Gertrude’s account of events, with Ophelia climbing into a willow tree whose branch breaks, dropping her into the stream below.

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), The Death of Ophelia (1853), oil on canvas, 23 x 30 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Fifteen years later, in 1853, Delacroix returned to the story and painted The Death of Ophelia again, just as loosely but with richer chroma. Although the artist has reversed the image here, she is still holding onto the branch of a tree, and about to be carried away to her death.

John Everett Millais (1829–1896), Ophelia (1851-2), oil on canvas, 76.2 x 111.8 cm, Tate Britain, London. Wikimedia Commons.

One of the best-known Pre-Raphaelite paintings is John Everett Millais’ Ophelia, painted between 1851-2, in which Ophelia drowns herself in the “weeping brook”. Its background was painted en plein air near Ewell, Surrey, England, during 1851. The figure of Ophelia was painted in over the following winter, using as the model Lizzie Siddal in a bathtub full of water.

Millais used extensive symbolism in the flowers shown: roses for love, and possibly alluding to her brother calling her the ‘rose of May’; willow, nettle and daisy for forsaken love, suffering, and innocence, respectively; pansies for love in vain; violets (in her necklace chain) for faithfulness, chastity, or young death; poppies for death; forget-me-nots for remembrance. Each was painted in the studio from life, and superimposed on the background to form a composite image which never existed in reality.

This is the first depiction to ignore Queen Gertrude’s account in favour of a more tragic-romantic self-drowning. There is a deeper and more poignant tragedy here too, in that Lizzie Siddal, Millais’ long-suffering model for this work, died just a decade later at the age of only 32, from an opium overdose which may well have been suicidal.

Arthur Hughes (1832–1915), Ophelia (first version) (c 1851-1853), oil on panel, 68.6 × 123.8 cm, Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester, England. Wikimedia Commons.

At the same time that Millais was being eaten alive by midges when painting in the deepest Surrey countryside, Arthur Hughes, another Pre-Raphaelite, was hard at work on his first painting of Ophelia, which he completed slightly later.

It shows Ophelia sat under a willow tree, by the stream in which she was shortly to drown herself, having been driven to madness by Hamlet’s murder of her father and his rejection of her love. To ensure that the viewer is in no doubt as to the moment which he shows us, Hughes inscribed the relevant lines from Hamlet Act 4 Scene 7 around his painting. But it lacks any sense of the imminently tragic outcome, relying on its text and the viewer’s own knowledge of the play.

Arthur Hughes (1832–1915), Ophelia (“And will he not come again?”) (second version) (c 1863-71), oil on canvas, 94.5 x 59.5 cm, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OH. The Athenaeum.

A decade later, Hughes returned to this story, in his Ophelia (“And will he not come again?”) (c 1863-71). This time he refers to an earlier moment in the play, in Act 4 Scene 5, just after Hamlet’s murder of Polonius, when Ophelia, already “distracted”, sings:
And will he not come again?
And will he not come again?
No, no, he is dead;
Go to thy deathbed;
He never will come again.
His beard was as white as snow,
All flaxen was his poll.
He is gone, he is gone,
And we cast away moan.
God ‘a’mercy on his soul!
And of all Christian souls, I pray God. God b’ wi’ you.

Despite that reference to a scene which takes place inside the castle, Hughes has painted Ophelia minutes before her drowning, when she is picking wild flowers and standing in front of an old willow tree which overhangs a much more substantial body of water. The latter is almost black in the deep shade, and is revealed as water only by the presence of a few bright reflected objects on its surface.

Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848–1884), Ophelia (unfinished) (1881), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Museum of Fine Arts of Nancy, Nancy, France. Wikimedia Commons.

When Jules Bastien-Lepage died suddenly in 1884, he left his unfinished painting of Ophelia which he had started in 1881. Her anguish is about to drive her body down into the water, and drown there. At the time of his death, Bastien-Lepage still had to paint all the foreground detail. This would have covered the lower half of the canvas, and given it his usual finely detailed appearance.

Jules-Élie Delaunay (1828-1891), Ophelia (1882), oil on canvas, 61 × 43 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux, Bordeaux, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Jules-Élie Delaunay painted this beautiful portrait of Ophelia in 1882, whose only narrative references are the careful choice of flowers. Without knowing its title, most viewers would be hard-put to work out who it represented.

Alexandre Cabanel (1823–1889), Ophelia (1883), oil on canvas, 77 x 117.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

The following year, it was the turn of the academic painter Alexandre Cabanel to try his hand at Ophelia (1883). I suspect that he had the benefit of seeing both Delacroix’s and Millais’ paintings, and opted to return to Queen Gertrude’s account involving the broken willow branch. By a curious twist of fate, Bastien-Lepage had been Cabanel’s former pupil, although at that time, before Bastien-Lepage’s untimely death, it’s likely that Cabanel was unaware of his former pupil’s unfinished painting.

Anna Lea Merritt (1844–1930), Ophelia (1889), etching, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

My last image of Ophelia for today isn’t a painting, but an etching made in 1889 by the almost-forgotten Anna Lea Merritt. Like Delaunay, she opts for a non-narrative portrait, which may have featured one of the popular actresses of the day.


Wikipedia on Shakespeare’s play.
Full text at Project Gutenberg.

Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells (eds) (2015) The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, 2nd edn, Oxford UP. ISBN 978 0 19 870873 5.