Many artists painted Shakespeare's Ophelia, the tragic heroine of Hamlet, who became insane after Hamlet killed her father and deserted her. According to Peter Trippi, many Victorian artists used her as a symbol of “female fragility and missed opportunities,” Many artists depicted scenes of Ophelia’s watery death (Trippi 95). The artist J.W. Waterhouse painted three versions of Ophelia, all of which portray her in various stages before her death.

Waterhouse’s first Ophelia in 1889 depicts a young woman lying in a field with hair and dress disheveled gazing past the viewer.The artist has effectively integrated Ophelia with her landscape, entwining flowers in her hair on her dress and in her hands. Unfortunately, the tilt of her head and blank stare make it difficult to determine her thoughts. A stream is pictured in the background, which is as difficult to detect as the subject’s identity to an unknowing viewer. In contrast, Waterhouse’s 1894 version seats Ophelia on a log, extending out into a pond of lilies in the last moments before her death. Her opulent dress strong contrasts her natural surroundings, but once again Waterhouse has placed flowers on her lap and in her hair tying her into her natural surroundings. She stares out into the dark water, giving the onlooker a profile view of her strangely solemn face. This expression does not seem to accurately portray a woman who has decided to take her own life. Much like the previous Ophelia, the subject looks distant.

Waterhouse’s final depiction of Ophelia in 1910 is by far the most dramatic. As in the others, the others she is adorned with flowers and long reddish brown hair, but this Ophelia differs drastically from the other two representations. Waterhouse portrays a much more mature and womanly Ophelia in this painting. A voluptuous young woman in blue and crimson gown replaces the virginal white dress and girlish figure that was previously employed by Waterhouse. She stands in the forefront occupying most of the pictorial space, gazing right at the viewer .Her penetrating stare and reddened cheeks effectively express her state of despair. Her hand rests on the tree as to balance herself before she steps into the water. The two subjects in the background look on, unaware as Ophelia presses on towards her fate.

The three portrayals of Ophelia by Waterhouse form a progression of the moments leading up to her death. In the first, she is young lying in a field, with the stream far behind her. The second portrays a slightly older Ophelia sitting closer to the water, but still appearing distant from her future fate and the viewer. The final painting of Ophelia depicts the subject as a mature woman confronting not only the viewer but also the choice in front of her.

Questions

1. What is the importance of the flowers?

2. Which depiction of Ophelia do you feel best represents her as a symbol of “female fragility and missed opportunities”?

3. How do these representations of women compare to other known stereotypes of this time, i.e. the femme fatale?

4. Why would an artist such as Waterhouse return to the same subject multiple times, and why this one in particular?
Victorian Web Homepage Visual Arts J. W. Waterhouse paintings by J. W. Waterhouse Discussion questions for J. W. Waterhouse

Last modified 30 January 2007