This third and final article covering Shakespeare’s greatest play, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, concludes my account of paintings of the death of Ophelia. The first article summarised the play’s plot and showed paintings for several of its scenes, and the second showed paintings of the death of Ophelia from 1838 to 1889.
John William Waterhouse appears to have become almost obsessed with this theme. His Ophelia from 1889 shows her lying in the midst of wild flowers in a wood, with no water in sight.
Even the academic painter of nudes Jules LeFebvre tackled Ophelia’s 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.
Waterhouse’s 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.
Most surprising of all is Paul Albert Steck’s Ophelia from about 1894 for its unusual sub-aquatic setting. In common with images 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.
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 unusual pastel painting of Ophelia from 1900-5 shows her in a lily pond, presumably just after her suicide. The contrast between this and Waterhouse’s paintings couldn’t be greater. Redon shows her from an unusual point of view looking down from above, and with more than a touch of Japonism, vibrant colour, and varied forms in the plants.
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 less than a century, Ophelia had attained fame on canvas.
Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells (eds) (2015) The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, 2nd edn, Oxford UP. ISBN 978 0 19 870873 5.