Ophelia is a character in Hamlet, by William Shakespeare. She is driven mad when her father, Polonius, is murdered by her lover, Hamlet. She dies while still very young, suffering from grief and madness. The events shown in Millais’s Ophelia are not actually seen on stage. Instead they are referred to in a conversation between Queen Gertrude and Ophelia’s brother Laertes. Gertrude describes how Ophelia fell into the river while picking flowers and slowly drowned, singing all the while (Source: Tate Gallery, London).
Hamlet, Act 1V, Scene V11
Laertes: Drowned! O, where?
Queen Gertrude: There is a willow grows askant the brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead-men’s-fingers call them.
There on the pendent boughs her crownet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up;
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
Laertes: Alas, then she is drowned?
Queen Gertrude: Drowned, drowned
Ophelia is depicted in a 1894 painting by English painter J. W Waterhouse, depicting the character in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. She is a young noblewoman of Denmark, a potential wife for Prince Hamlet. In the 1894 version by Waterhouse, Ophelia is depicted, in the last moments before her death, sitting on a willow branch extending out over a pond of lilies. Her royal dress strongly contrasts with her natural surroundings. Waterhouse has placed flowers on her lap and in her hair, tying her into her natural surroundings (Source: Wikipedia).
Ophelia is one of the most well-known Pre-Raphaelite works in the Tate collection. The painting was part of the original Henry Tate Gift in 1894. Millais’s image of the tragic death of Ophelia, as she falls into the stream and drowns, is one of the best-known depictions from Shakespeare.
The Pre-Raphaelites focused on serious and significant subjects and were best known for painting subjects from modern life and literature often using historical costumes. They painted directly from nature itself, as truthfully as possible and with incredible attention to detail (Source: Tate Gallery, London).
An old archetype of Suicide and MAdness
J. E. Millais painted Ophelia between 1851 and 1852 in two separate locations. He painted the landscape part of the painting outside, by the Hogsmill River at Ewell in Surrey; and painted the figure of Ophelia inside in his Gower Street studio in London.
At the time Millais was painting, it was common for artists to work outside to produce sketches. They then took these back to their studio and used them as reference to create a larger finished painting. However, Millais and his Pre-Raphaelite friends completed their paintings outside in the open air, which was unusual for the time.
Millais did not give himself as long to paint the figure of Ophelia as he did to paint the landscape. Traditionally, the landscape was often considered the less important part of painting and therefore painted second. Millais and the Pre-Raphaelites believed the landscape was of equal importance to the figure, and so for Ophelia, it was painted first.
POSING FOR OPHELIA
Millais’s model was a young woman aged nineteen called Elizabeth Siddall. She was discovered by his friend, Walter Deverell, working in a hat shop. She later married one of Millais’s friends, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in 1860.
To create the effect of Elizabeth pretending to be Ophelia drowning in the river, she posed for Millais in a bath full of water. To keep the water warm some oil lamps were placed underneath. On one occasion, the lamps went out and Millais was so engrossed by his painting that he didn’t even notice!
During her time posing for the painting, Elizabeth got very cold and became quite ill. With no National Health Service or readily available medicine, Elizabeth was looked after by a private doctor paid for by Elizabeth’s father who then ordered Millais to pay the fifty medical bills. The matter was settled and Miss Siddall recovered quickly.
While posing, Elizabeth wore a very fine silver embroidered dress bought by Millais from a second-hand shop for four pounds.
“To-day I have purchased a really splendid lady’s ancient dress- all flowered over in silver embroidery-and I am going to paint it for ‘Ophelia’…it cost me, old and dirty as it is, four pounds.”
John Everett Millais
Most of the flowers in Ophelia are included either because they are mentioned in the play, or for their symbolic value. Millais saw these flowers growing wild by the river in Ewell. Because he painted the river scene over a period of five months, flowers that bloom at different times of the year appear next to each other.
Millais always painted directly from nature itself with great attention to detail. The flowers are painted from real, individual flowers and Millais shows the dead and broken leaves as well as the flowers in full bloom. Millais’s son John wrote that his father’s flowers were so realistic that a professor teaching botany, who was unable to take a class of students into the country, took them to see the flowers in the painting Ophelia, as they were as instructive as nature itself.
PHOTOGRAPHY WAS INVENTED IN 1839, TWELVE YEARS BEFORE MILLAIS PAINTED OPHELIA. PHOTOS WERE NOT AS CLEAR AS THEY ARE TODAY HOWEVER. MILLAIS’S OPHELIA WAS MORE DETAILED THAN WHAT PHOTOGRAPHY WAS ABLE TO ACHIEVE AT THIS TIME AND WAS A UNIQUE WAY OF REPRESENTING THE NATURAL WORLD.
Source: Tate Gallery, London.
Mary Pipher wrote the book, Reviving Ophelia. The 25th anniversary edition of the iconic book, is revised and updated for 21st-century adolescent girls and their families.
Reviving Ophelia was originally published in 1994, and it shone a much-needed spotlight on the problems faced by adolescent girls. The book became iconic and helped to reframe the national conversation about what author Mary Pipher called “a girl-poisoning culture” surrounding adolescents. Fast forward to today, and adolescent girls and the parents, teachers, and counselors who care about them find themselves confronting many of the same challenges Pipher wrote about originally as well as new ones specific to today.
Girls still struggle with misogyny, sexism, and issues of identity and self-esteem. But they’re also more isolated than ever before: They don’t talk face-to-face to the people around them, including their peers, as they used to: They’re texting or on social media for hours at a time. And while girls today are less likely to be in trouble for their drinking or sexual behavior, they have a greater chance of becoming depressed, anxious, or suicidal.
In this revised and updated Reviving Ophelia, Pipher and her daughter, Sara Pipher Gilliam (who was a teenager at the time of the book’s original publication), have incorporated these new issues for a 21st-century readership. In addition to examining the impact that social media has on adolescent girls’ lives today, Pipher and Gilliam explore the rising and empowering importance of student activism in girls’ lives, the wider acceptance of diverse communities among young people, and the growing disparities between urban and rural, rich and poor, and how they can affect young girls’ sense of self-worth. With a new foreword and afterword and chapters that explore these topics, this new edition of Reviving Ophelia builds on the relevance of the original as it provides key insights into the challenges and opportunities facing adolescent girls today.
The approach Pipher and Gilliam take in the new edition is just what it was in the original: a timely, readable combination of insightful research and real-world examples that illuminate the challenges young women face and the ways to address them. This updated Reviving Ophelia looks at 21st century adolescent girls through fresh eyes, with insights and ideas that will help new generations of readers. Buy here.
In Daniel Drage’s latest published essay in Image Journal (Issue 107), he explores the negative spaces in art and creation, which I believe has connotations to this archetype when you consider the themes of emptiness, loss, despair, and infertility. He states:
“The concept of negative space offers an interesting point of connection between works of art and sacred texts. The Bible presents myriad examples of empty or bounded spaces, which it describes in palpable, visual terms, alive with meaning. Think of the space opened up by the parting of the Red Sea, for example, or of particular empty wombs and tombs which are among the most profound negative spaces in scripture.” Read more . . .