Arthur Hughes. Ophelia. 1852. Oil on panel. 20 x 36 inches (51 x 91.5 cm). Collection of Lord Lloyd-Webber.
Commentary by The Art-Journal (1865)
Mr. Ruskin, in his "Notes on some of the Principal Pictures exhibited at the Royal Academy" in 1858, speaks inferentially of this artist as one of the "leaders" of the Pre-Raffaellite school, and reprobates the absence of the rest from the gallery. Mr. Hughes, though certainly less known than some who have attained notoriety in the style of Art which the eloquent author of "Modern Painters" takes under his especial protection, is certainly entitled to assume the rank in which he has been placed. While deprecating the injudicious encomiums which have too often been lavished by writers and amateurs on the pictures of this school, it must fairly be acknowledged that Pre-Raffaellitism has led painters to earnest, serious thought, and to diligent, painstaking execution. "In learning to work carefully from nature, everybody has been obliged to paint what will stay to be painted, and the best of nature will not wait."
That this style, in its least extravagant form, should acquire popularity, is not ex- traordinary: the great mass of those who visit our picture galleries can better under- stand what is purely naturalistic in Art than what is purely ideal, especially in landscape painting; they are charmed with a bank of moss, or a bunch of wild flowers, or the texture of a garment which rivals the actual material. "This natural Art speaks to all men; around it daily the circles of sympathy will enlarge;" but the ill-drawn, thin, attenuated figure, having no form of comeliness nor personal beauty, excites only the surprise or ridicule of the many, whatever meaning the artist intends it to convey.
The painter of 'Ophelia' is not one who carries his predilections to the extreme; he preserves—better than most of his compeers—the juste milieu, between the two opposites of Pre-Raffaellitism natural and Pre-Raffaellitism unnatural; or, in other words, he shows us that the Art to which this title has been given may be made attractive, just as others have seemed to labour only for the purpose of showing its repulsiveness. The picture in question is an example. Here, every blade of grass, every leaf and flower, are given with the most exquisite delicacy and the most scrupulous fidelity, and yet there appears no overstrained elaboration, while the colour of all is very rich and brilliant, both in the gradations of green verdure, and in the twilight sky, now deepening in the horizon into the intensest purple. On the trunk of a tree sits the distraught maiden:—
"There is a willow grows askant the brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
Therewith fnntostic garlands did she make
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples."
A sweet, child-like face is Ophelia's, its look of vacancy scarcely dimming its beauty; the absence of reason developing itself rather in her actions, as she drops the white blossoms into the slowly-flowing stream, and watches them quietlv floating away, than in her countenance. The whole figure, as it appears in the picture, suggests the idea of an exquisite cameo in a setting of rich enamels. The composition is, undoubtedly, that of an artist whose mind has thoroughly felt his subject, and given to it a truly poetical rendering. 
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Last modified 11 November 2021