Ophelia, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is a character which creates a deep impression in the heart of the sentimental readers. She was the beautiful and naïve daughter of Polonius and Prince Hamlet of Denmark was in love with her. However, Hamlet’s father was murdered by his brother Claudius, as he wanted to seize the throne and also married Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. As the ghost of his father appeared before Hamlet and asked him to avenge his death, Hamlet resolved to set aside his love and only concentrate on avenging the murder of his father.
Poor Ophelia was not at all aware about Hamlet’s inner turmoil and she became perplexed and hurt by the sudden change of attitude of Hamlet towards her. Finally, when Hamlet killed Ophelia’s father, Polonius, as the old man was spying on him at the instance of Claudius, Ophelia lost her sanity and drowned while plucking flowers and singing sad songs bemoaning the fate of a spurned lover.
The Pre-Raphaelite artists of Victorian England painted many interesting characters from Shakespeare, but Ophelia was a special favourite. As a tragic beauty, Ophelia has long been a popular subject of the artists and many of them used her as a symbol of female fragility and depicted scenes of Ophelia’s watery death on canvas.
One of the most famous paintings of Ophelia was created by the famous English painter John Everett Millais, who was one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, opposing the influence of Sir Joshua Reynolds, founder and the first President of the English Royal Academy of Arts. Millais used bright, intense colours in the landscape to make the pale Ophelia contrast with the nature behind her. This is very much evident in the vivid detail of the nature around Ophelia, the contouring of her face, and the intricate work on her dress.
It was a hard task for Elizabeth Siddal, the model, who posed as Ophelia for the painter. She had to lie in a large bath filled with water, which was kept at an even temperature by lamps placed beneath. One day, the lamps went out, but Millais was so much engrossed in his work, that he did not notice it and Siddal kept floating in the freezing water till she was almost numbed.
Another English painter, John William Waterhouse, painted three versions of Ophelia, all of which portray her in various stages before her death. His first version (1889) of Ophelia depicts a young woman lying in a field with disheveled hair and dress and gazing past the viewer. In his second version (1894), Ophelia is shown as sitting on a log, extending on a pond of lilies. Her lush and luxurious dress appears to be in strong contrasts of her natural surroundings, but the flowers on her lap and in her hair made her befitting to the natural surroundings. She stares out into the dark water, giving the onlooker a profile view of her strangely solemn and serene face.
Waterhouse’s final depiction (1910) of Ophelia is definitely the most dramatic among the three. Here again, she is adorned with flowers and long reddish brown hair, but unlike the other two versions, here she is a voluptuous young woman in blue and crimson gown, which replaces the virginal white dress and girlish figure. Her penetrating stare and reddened cheeks effectively express her state of pain and despair. Her hand rests on the tree, as if to balance herself before she steps into the water.
Apart from John Millais and John William Waterhouse, many other eminent artists painted their own versions of Ophelia, including Alexandre Cabinet, Arthur Hughes, Arthur Prince Spear and others.