The prolific work of the godfather of British Pop Art was recently celebrated at Tate Liverpool in a major Peter Blake retrospective. One of the paintings amongst this huge collection featured a young girl staring out into the eyes of the viewer, standing hip-deep in murky water, her clothing torn to reveal a breast, her hand outstretched offering a bunch of distressed flower stems. Is the girl asking for help? If so the help never comes as the title of this haunting image reveals the girl to be Ophelia, the tragic heroine of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Blake painted his Ophelia whilst a member of the Brotherhood of Ruralists, a group of artists he founded who took their inspiration from the spirit of the countryside. His work during this period revealed a fascination with the Victorian fondness of mysticism and nature. When comparing this to his earlier work Blake says “the cast is the same, as the years go by they play different parts. A girl might be a pin up in the 60’s, then.....in the 70’s she would have become Titania or Ophelia and so on”.
However, striking as Blake’s Ophelia may be she is neither one of the best known paintings by him or of her. The death of Ophelia has been portrayed by numerous artists over a period of at least four centuries. Probably the most famous being the version by Sir John Everett Millais from 1851 which depicts Ophelia in a dream-like state, surrounded by flowers, floating down the river to her imminent death. Both paintings depict the same scene, showing Ophelia’s last few moments of life, mad with grief after her father’s murder by her lover, Hamlet, she slips whilst picking flowers and falls into a stream where she allows herself to die. In the play her death is not witnessed by the audience but related through a powerful speech from Queen Gertrude* (widow of the dead King Hamlet), this could be a reason for so many artists choosing to depict the scene as it is purely reliant on the imagination, the drama of the speech being relayed though visual rather than performance art.
Millais was a fashionable and technically brilliant Victorian painter and co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood which sought to emulate artists from an earlier time period than Raphael, the 16th century renaissance master. Millais’ Ophelia was regarded at the time as one of the most accurate and elaborate studies of nature ever made. Although the painting was not well received by everyone; The Times declared “there must be something strangely perverse in the imagination which sources Ophelia in a weedy ditch and robs the drowning struggle of that love-lorn maiden of all pathos and beauty”. Even John Ruskin, usually a great supporter of Millais, was not altogether kind, whilst finding the technique of the painting “exquisite” he expressed grave doubts about Millais’ decision to set it in a surrey landscape: “Why the mischief should you not paint pure nature.....and not that rascally wire-fenced garden-rolled-nursery-maid’s paradise?”
(Ophelia, Sir John Everett Millais, 1851)
Whatever Ruskin’s thoughts may have been and despite the Danish setting of the play the painting has come to be seen as quintessentially English, set on the banks of the Hogsmill river in Surrey. Ophelia was added later at Millais’ London studio, where the nineteen year old model Elizabeth Siddal posed, fully dressed, in a bathtub of water heated from underneath by oil lamps. Unfortunately when the lamps went out the artist was too engrossed in his work to notice and left Elizabeth lying deathly still in chilly water for hours on end, causing her a severe cold and Millais a hefty doctors bill. However no serious harm was done and Elizabeth went on to marry another Pre-Raphaelite artist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Her pose with arms open and an upwards gaze resembles the traditional portrayal of a saint or martyr but can also be interpreted as erotic. The flowers surrounding the drowning Ophelia correspond to Shakespeare’s description of her garland but also reflect the Victorian interest in the language of flowers, according to which each flower carries a symbolic meaning: the daisy means innocence, the pansy - love in vain, the violet - faithfulness, willow - love forsaken, forget-me-not - memory and the nettle means pain. The prominent red poppy is not mentioned in the Shakespearian text but signifies sleep and death.
According to Elisabeth Bronfen, professor of English and American studies at the University of Zurich, Ophelia has become an icon for femininity in despair. Abandoned by her brother, abused by her lover and manipulated by her father her only way out is an excessive histrionic display of vulnerability. In the Queen’s words Ophelia did not actively choose death, but rather wistfully surrendered herself to the laws of gravity. A breaking twig caused her to fall, and as her garments became heavy with the stream’s water, she was pulled to her muddy grave. Yet for a moment the widespread clothes sustained her while she chanted melodies, as if unaware of her precarious situation. Lying forever on her back in a stream, flowers floating beside her, she is perfected, she will fulfil the destiny others have scripted for her.
In contrast, American literary critic, feminist, and writer on cultural and social issues, Elaine Showalter is concerned that Ophelia has become a symbol of the distraught and hysterical woman in modern culture, a symbol which may be neither entirely accurate nor healthy for women. Ophelia is surrounded by powerful men, her father, brother and lover, all three disappear, Polonius is killed, Laertes leaves and Hamlet abandons her. Conventional theory was that without these three men making decisions for her Ophelia had been driven to madness. Feminist theorists argue that she goes mad with guilt because when Hamlet kills Polonius he has fulfilled her sexual desire to have Hamlet kill her father so that they can be together.
Another theory is that of New Historicism, developed in 1980 primarily through the work of Stephen Greenblatt, this is an approach to literary criticism and theory based on the premise that a literary work should be considered a product of the time, place and circumstances of its composition rather than as an isolated creation. They aim simultaneously to understand the work through its historical context and to understand cultural and intellectual history through literature. New Historicist critics have examined the play in its historical context attempting to piece together its original cultural environment. Their studies focused on the gender system of early modern England pointing to woman’s common trinity of maid, wife, widow, only ‘whore’ is outside this stereotype. In this analysis the essence of Hamlet is the central character’s changed perception of his mother as a whore (because of her failure to remain faithful to Old Hamlet), therefore Hamlet loses faith in all women thus treating Ophelia as a whore also.
Whilst Millais’ famous painting hangs at Tate Britain the Manchester City Art Gallery has its own Ophelia, painted by Arthur Hughes in 1852, and originally displayed at the same time as the Millais. Hughes was only nineteen when he painted his Ophelia who is sitting at the base of an overhanging willow tree (representing her forsaken love) the choice of scene and pose is very similar to the Blake version, but the style and shape of the painting are far more reminiscent of the Millais. Queen Gertrude’s speech is inscribed on the heavy gold frame.
This time period also produced an Ophelia by the French artist Eugene Delacroix more usually associated with powerful revolutionary paintings providing a vivid commentary on the social, intellectual and artistic world of Paris in the first half of the nineteenth century, such as ‘Liberty Leading the People’. In his version of Ophelia he has allowed his romantic spirit to free itself from the stiff classicism that dominated early nineteenth century French art.
(Ophelia, Eugene Delacroix, 1853)
This painting was produced in 1853 and it may appear at first that Delacroix copied Hughes who copied Millais. However these thoughts can be laid to rest as Delacroix’s painting is based on a lithograph produced in 1843 and inspired by an English production of Hamlet that he saw in Paris in 1827. (He also made an earlier version of the painting in 1838.) He was heavily influenced by the play and made a series of thirteen lithographs which went on to influence Ford Madox Brown with his series of drawings for King Lear. So it may well have been Delacroix who inspired Millais and Hughes.
There are, however, significant differences between this painting and its two contemporaries, whilst all the paintings should be about misery, madness and death the other two seem almost inviting and have certain positive associations. The settings are still and enchanted, the flowers so fresh you can almost smell them, the water cool, still and refreshing; whereas the setting here is dark and gloomy, and the water cold and murky with a strong current. Also in the two previous examples Ophelia somehow seems content and secure in her destiny whereas here, whilst still grasping her symbolic flowers with one hand she clings to life with the other, not accepting her destiny and without enough strength to save herself but still desperately hoping to be rescued. The impact of this painting is also heightened by the strong sexual overtones. The picture here seems far more true to life and less fantasised, as if the artist is more personally involved. This could well be because when Delacroix went to the 1927 production of Hamlet he fell instantly in love with Harriet Smithson the actress that played Ophelia and later went on to marry her.
A similar study could be done on another ‘outbreak’ of Ophelia paintings produced around 60 years later. John William Waterhouse, famous for his paintings of classical, historical, and literary subjects produced a beautiful Ophelia in 1910 (his third painting of the subject), an interesting addition to this painting is the two spectators who can be seen on the bridge in the background. Another point of interset is that the model is probably his wife. In the same year W.G. Simmonds produced a watercolour illustration for a copy of Hamlet (now owned by the Huntington library) ‘The Drowning of Ophelia’. Whilst the vacant expression on the face can be compared with Millais’ Ophelia the striking thing about this visualization is the white dress that billows over the water to suggest the wings of an angel.
(The Drowning of Ophelia, W.G. Simmonds, 1910)
Both of these paintings have a very similar style to their Pre-Raphaelite forerunners so it is a refreshing change to look at a pastel drawing produced around 1905 by Odilon Redon, French printmaker, draughtsman and painter. In accordance with Symbolist theories Redon was more interested in exploring the inner psyche than in depicting reality in a straightforward manner. His aim was to find a form of artisitic expression that would inspire introspection and thought on the part of the viewer. His belief in an enchanted inner vision led to the creation of highly imaginative pastels, paintings and lithographs with fantastical subjects representing fragments of dreams. His work became very influential for a group of younger symbolists who called themselves the Nablis.
(Ophelia, Odilon Redon, 1905)
The artistic asprirations of Redon correspond favourably with those of New York photographer Gregory Crewdson, curently living and working in New York. Crewdson treds a fine line between cinema and photography creating single photographs of carefully created scenes using a whole arsenal of film making techniques. He says “I love the experience of cinema - being enveloped in a complete world of anothers imagination. I love the quality of film - how it can capture so richly the colour and light of a scene. And I love photography for what it leaves unsaid, for it is from this that we can start to spin our own imagination.” His images are like incomplete sentences, with little reference to prior events or what may follow. A woman dressed only in a white slip, floats on the surface of the water submerging her living room - a modern day suburban Ophelia (2001) complete with settee and out-of-date wallpaper patterns. There are no flowers here, except possibly in the wallpaper design but they have been repaced with the sysbols of a modern day American suburban housewife, bringing Ophelia into the twenty-first century.
(Untitled (Ophelia), Gregory Crewdson, 2001)
So far all these Ophelias have been produced by male artists, only one female artist has appeared, Annie Ovenden, who like Blake was a member of the Brotherhood of Ruralists. Her Ophelia (1979) was created for display in their exhibtion held in 1980 which was themed on Ophelia. Presumably Blake’s version would have been shown at the same exhibition along with several more Ophelias of the time. The Pre-Raphaelites were a clear influence on the Ruralists and Ovendens painting might be regarded as paying homage to Millais. The red poppy is extremely prominent in this version.
(Ophelia, Annie Ovenden, 1979)
Artists may have been inspired by each other or by a particular perfomance of the play or by the text itself but always Ophelia seems to be treated with kindness and with a heart-felt longing to keep her alive and beautiful forever in their minds and fantasies. The last words come from Lucinda Hawksley, freelance writer and author of the book ‘Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel’ in an article about Millais’ Ophelia she finishes by saying “Ophelias death throes can be read as a moment of ecstasy. An ecstasy experienced by a woman usually trammelled by the conventions of her society, or of her imagination, who has come to regard her existence as mere drudgery, and who has finally found freedom.”