Famous paintings of Ophelia by Millais, Waterhouse and other artists
Ophelia by John Everett Millais, 1851-52
Millais's Pre-Raphaelite Ophelia - Lizzie Siddall modelled in a bathtub
The Pre-Raphaelite artists of Victorian England painted many Shakespearian characters, but Ophelia was a particular favourite. The sad death by drowning of Hamlet's sweetheart has captured the imagination of numerous artists, but John Everett Millais' well-known painting of a pale, red-haired Ophelia floating in still, dark water, surrounded by overhanging greenery, and a drifting posy of flowers, is surely the most famous of these images.
John Millais was a founder member of a group of Victorian artists known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He was dedicated to producing a fresh and naturalistic realism in his art, and had a very good eye for detail. Millais planned his painting of Ophelia with meticulous care, beginning with the background, which he painted directly from a section of the Hogsmill River in Ewell, Surrey. The laborious task of faithfully recording every bud, every leaf, and every blade of grass took Millais a solid five months of work. He sat painting on the riverbank for up to eleven hours a day, six days a week, and as the summer of 1851 wore on into autumn, and the weather began to turn against him, he had a little hut erected to shelter him from the rain and wind while he worked.
The second stage of Ophelia was completed in Millais' studio at 7 Gower Street in London. Nineteen year old Elizabeth Siddal agreed to model for the painting, and she was made to lie fully clothed in a full bathtub in the studio. By now it was winter, and Millais was obliged to place oil lamps under the tub to warm the water. Unfortunately, however, he soon became so engrossed in his work that he failed to notice when they went out. As a result, Siddal caught a severe cold, and her angry father sent Millais a letter demanding £50 for medical expenses, though eventually a lower sum was agreed.
The flowers shown floating on the river correspond with Shakespeare's description of Ophelia's garland.
T"There's rosemary, that's for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that's for thoughts," said Ophelia to her brother Laertes. "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 withered all when my father died."
The flowers illustrated also reflect the Victorian interest in the "language of flowers", which suggests that each bloom has a symbolic meaning. Millais has included red poppies in his painting, although these are not mentioned in Shakespeare's description, and the poppy represents sleep and death. Ironically, the model, Lizzie Siddal later died tragically of a laudanum overdose. Laudanum is derived from the opium poppy.
Detail from Ophelia by John Everett Millais
Ophelia by John William Waterhouse, 1894
Ophelia by John William Waterhouse
John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) painted many large canvases in a Pre-Raphaelite style. He was particularly fond of subjects from literature, especially beautiful, tragic heroines. The character of Ophelia greatly appealed to him, and he was to paint her four times. A fifth planned painting was never completed due to ill-health.
In Shakespeare's play, 'Hamlet', Ophelia is the daughter of Polonius, and sister to Laertes. She has been Hamlet's sweetheart, but he rejects her love, and subsequently kills her father. These actions profoundly affect Ophelia and unbalance her mind. Her mad scene (act IV, scene 5) is one of the best known in Western literature. In Waterhouse's painting shown above, Ophelia is decorating her hair with a garland, and there are more flowers and herbs in her lap. She is shown sitting on a bent over willow on the banks of a brook, and we know that this is where she will meet her fate.
Ophelia by Arthur Hughes, 1851-53
Ophelia by Arthur Hughes
Arthur Hughes (1832-1915) completed his version of Ophelia in 1853 when he was only 21 years old. Hughes' Ophelia is a fragile, pale creature seated on the bent over trunk of a willow, contemplating the waters at her feet. Her hair is garlanded, and she is holding an armful of greenery. Hughes has painted his heroine with such delicacy. Her skin is almost luminous, and her expression is unbearably sad. The painting has been completed on panel, and the golden arch that frames it, is inscribed with words from Shakespeare's play, 'Hamlet', Act 4 Scene 7;
There is a willow grows aslant a brook
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream
There with fantastic garlands did she make
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook.
Ophelia by Alexandre Cabanel, 1883
Ophelia by Alexandre Cabanel
Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889) was a French painter, born in Montpelier, Herault. He is best known as an academic artist, and was closely associated with the Paris Salon.
Cabanel shows Ophelia slipping very gracefully from the broken limb of a crooked willow. She doesn't seem too perturbed by the fact that she is about to land in the water. Cabanel has given his Ophelia the look of a medieval princess. She is very blonde and pretty, and her flowers have already dropped into the brook.
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