Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Revealed Ophelia

It's almost too daunting to write about Ophelia in regards to Victorian art.  There is just too much information about Millais picture alone, never mind Waterhouse et al.  One thing is for sure, because of the nineteenth century, we have an all-pervading image of a female victim, dying for love.
But should we thank them?

The big one, by Millais from 1851-2
Let's just get this one out of the way immediately.  You'd be forgiven in thinking no-one else bothered to paint the character, so overwhelming this image seems to be for our society.  Not only is this the go-to picture for Ophelia, but also for the model, Elizabeth Siddal.  There are lovely rumours suggesting she drowned while it was being painted (longest drowning ever) and other suggestions that this was the moment that doomed her as surely as Heath Ledger accepting the role of The Joker.  From this moment onward, Lizzie is Poor Lizzie, the victim, the abandoned lover.  We conflate the model and the character, such is the majesty of Millais work.  Mind you, Rossetti doesn't help by casting her again in the role...

The First Madness of Ophelia D G Rossetti
So Lizzie becomes Ophelia, sealing her fate and her image forever. She became the poster girl for benign, doomed woman. She sorts out her own problems by clumsy, accidental suicide.  Remind you of anyone?

Ophelia (1887) Simeon Solomon
The history of Ophelia imagery is much larger than one woman/one picture.  She struck a chord with Victorians and remains with us today.  But what is it she's trying to tell us and why is that message loud and clear even now?

Ophelia (1890) Henrietta Rae
By the evidence of the art, you would be forgiven in thinking that the poor lass spent the entire play in a river.  In fact, for obvious reasons, we never see Ophelia fall into the river, we only have Gertrude's description of it.  I was always tempted to never trust a word that woman said and I'm sure there are Shakespeare academics who might argue that the Queen did the poor young girl in or something like that.  Anyway, a few plucky artists chose to show Ophelia earlier in the play.  Rae shows her at the point of madness as she wanders through the court, bewildered by grief and abandonment.  The bright, white dress reflects her innocence and draws attention to the shadowy, untrustworthy nature of everyone else, especially the King.

Ophelia Weaving her Garlands (1842) Richard Redgrave
I think the time before Millais' Ophelia should be described as B.M. (Before Millais) and here is an image from that period.  A decade before Millais was letting the candles go out, Redgrave was producing this lovely image of the doomed maid on the riverbank, presumably sitting on the willow that will ultimately let her down.  I find it interesting that in a play so full of floral meaning, the tree that breaks beneath her is a symbol of female magic, rebirth and strength.  Are we supposed to imagine Ophelia as a sourceress or is it an ironic comment on the fact that she is guileless and betrayed, a powerless victim of the machinations of others?

Ophelia (1873) Thomas Francis Dicksee
I think the images of her on the riverbank are slightly titilating in purpose.  This isn't any girl sat in the open air, this is a mad girl by the means of her demise.  It is an image that reaches forward in time, showing someone with the unwitting method of their death, much like this...

James Dean and his car, Little Bastard
There is some vicious schadenfreude in seeing people posing with the thing that will kill them, something that taps into a base part of ourselves, that makes us see with 20:20 hindsight how obvious their deaths were.  Think of all the snarky comments about the death of Paul Walker, actor in the Fast and Furious franchise, in a car accident.  The fact he was not to blame seemed to have past some parts of the media by because look, there he is in all those films acting recklessly with a car.  We knew he would come to a bad end.  The same definitely seems to be the case for Elizabeth 'Ophelia' Siddal.  There she is, on the river bank, she's bound to fall in.  There she is in the water, she's bound to come to a bad end.

The Play Scene in Hamlet (1897) Edwin Austin Abbey
When not hanging about on a riverbank, I have to admit this is one of my favourite images of Ophelia.  Much like the Rae above, we are instantly drawn to the pale spectre of Ophelia.  All other figures jumble in dark, rich colours but she is like a candle, fragile and pale in a court that is so full of shadows she looks in danger of being smothered.  She strikes me as being a victim here, but not a direct one.  Her suffering, her emotions are used by others or ignored and she is slowly slipping away while everyone else is busy looking at each other and muttering curses.

Detail of Ophelia J W Waterhouse
Ophelia J W Waterhouse
Back to the riverbank and enter the other person equally responsible for making Ophelia a lasting icon of Victorian womanhood.  Waterhouse is better known for his Lady of Shalott fetish, but his images of Ophelia are equally loved and reproduced.  The gowns become luxuriant, the hair is long and glorious.  She is the bride of death, a creature of power and beauty who may never die because she is already beyond alive.  Unlike the Lady of Shalott, Waterhouse's Ophelia in the blue gown looks like she is going to drown and then come and get you.  She is unsettling as well as beautiful.

Ophelia Alexandre Cabanel
We all know what the money shot is.  Ophelia needs to fall in the water.  If she wasn't in the water, would we recognise her?  She's just a girl in medieval dress, sitting in a meadow or sitting in a castle.  It is when she is in the water that we know who she is.

Ophelia Constant Montald
Maybe it was the power of Millais image, or maybe because it is a visual cue from the story, but it lingers now with us.  That girl in the river with the flowers, we all know her name...

The video for this song referenced Millais' image

A typical Ophelia-based fashion shoot
Roll forward in time, over a hundred years since Millias put Lizzie in a bath.  Due to the colour palette used in the photographs, I think it is obvious that Millais' version of Ophelia remains the dominant source, but that is just due to the amount of exposure it receives.  Why do photographers use the drowned Ophelia?  What does she say to us?

If I was to wear my very serious feminist hat for a moment, I would admit I don't feel comfortable with the currency of Ophelia.  I am torn between how utterly beautiful the images are and how we link feminine beauty and feminine madness so closely.  It is a damaging construct to reach for: that women are at their most beautiful in madness and death, that it is a natural state (as hinted at by the one-ness with nature that Ophelia achieves).  It's no good blaming Shakespeare, he had it all happen off stage.  We turn an unblinking eye on the suicide-porn of Ophelia's demise in all its glorious colour.  Do we want to emphasize how a woman is at her most beautiful when she is at her most fragile or even when she is dead? Yet that very dangerous message slips past our radar into the pages of our glossy magazines.  Mind you compared to the other messages they push, it seems to fit right in.

I suppose what I am asking is that we question our consumption of images drawn from the art we love.  Don't reject Ophelia, I would never shout that and the Tate can sleep soundly knowing I would only come to marvel at their beautiful painting.  I think I need to be more aware of how my contemporaries choose to use her because if they want to sell me my victimhood, then I'm not sure I want to buy it.


  1. Bravo and Bravo! I always found it daftly interesting that Shakespeare's strongest women either killed themselves or went insane. I hear their voices call in my head, "Do you think I'm beautiful...?" Victimhood, indeed.

  2. I think, like you, that the choice to use Ophelia is not very smart to sell something. A woman mad and sad is not the better way to promote a dress or something else.
    Probably, it is only the use to a famous image by Millais.
    In my opinion, there is a bad idea about the woman's fragility.

  3. Thank you for your comments. Sometimes it's difficult to separate out a beautiful image and the message, especially when its so iconic and easily recognisable. I guess we are always looking for a visual shorthand to connect with an audience, but it is up to advertisers/fashion columnists/photographers to look beyond the first layer of meaning ('I know about art') to the second ('Women are victims waiting to happen').

  4. Another excellent article, going much deeper than would appear on the surface.

  5. drowning was also the most common form of suicide for poor women such as prostitutes in Victorian times,eg,Watts depicted it and I suspect there is an overlap somewhere

  6. While loving the fabulous botanica and fine image of Lizzie in Millais's painting, I do not like that advertising will always show yet another woman gone bonkers over a man.

  7. My favorite take on Ophelia:

  8. Thank you Lulia Flame, what an interesting take on the subject!

  9. Thank you for this article and another one very recent entry on Aesthetic Dress too (2015).

    My question might look a bit out of place, but do you know where I can read about the dress that Miss Siddal is wearing in Ophelia? I could only find from the open sources , that it was specially purchased and it was antique related to that time and once soaked in water it meant to emulate water reeds, blend with scenery, so to speak. As a designer I can see that it featured surface decoration, raised "tufted" goldwork or silverwork embroidery, rather than lace, but other then that......

    Maybe in your extensive research experience you have come across extra information that is not openly available ( by that meant special archives etc)? If so, could you be so kind to share.

    Thank you
    Elena Sharpe

  10. Thanks Elena, I'm afraid I have no further info but I will ask Stephanie Pina over at the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood website if she has anything. Alternatively you could try contacting her either via her site or via the Sisterhood page on Facebook.


  11. I wish I knew more about the dress! The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais is the first source where the dress was mentioned; it includes a letter Millais wrote to Thomas Combe in March 1852.
    "To-day I have purchased a really splendid lady's ancient dress--all flowered over in solver embroidery--and I am going to paint it for 'Ophelia'. You may imagine it is something rather good when I tell you it cost me--old and dirty as it is--four pounds."

    This seems to be the only contemporary mention of the dress and if the artist's son had not included it in the book, we probably wouldn't even know that little bit. I'd like to know what happened to it after Ophelia was painted, but if it was extremely old, the repeated wearing of it in the bath may have damaged it beyond repair.

    I would like to be able to direct you to other sources where you could read more about the dress, but most books that mention it are quoting Millais' letter to Combes.

  12. Hi Stephanie,
    Thank you for your time citing a part of that letter.
    "All flowered over in solver embroidery"-that proved some of my theories.
    It must have been a spectacular garment judging by the price of four pounds paid for an antique old dress in 1852, my friend here says it is over £2000 now.

    I will research more on this particular embroidery style . It is hard to judge the shape from the painting, so it makes rather difficult to say the era or decade. It does look like very early type of mantua dress around 1700-1710 before they "caricatured" to panniers . But I recon I can only speculate visually, it could be anything.

    Thank you again


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx