Ophelia Essay Section 2

Section 2. Ophelia Images and John Everett Millais 

The development of Ophelia's primarily visual presence in the Web 2.0 environment has its roots in the eighteenth century but may be said to have become fully established with the Pre-Raphaelite artists and their followers in the nineteenth century.[16] Many of the items of interest here owe a direct debt to Pre-Raphaelite art and in particular to John Everett Millais's ever popular Ophelia. This work, which is now in the Tate Gallery, was an instant success when it was first exhibited, along with Arthur Hughes's painting, at the Royal Academy in London in 1852.[17] 


    Significantly, two recent exhibitions of contemporary art works on the subject of Ophelia both included copious allusions to Millais's work, making it a central reference point. One exhibition was entitled "Ik, Ophelia." Held at the Van Gogh Museum (11 February to 18 May 2008), it was accompanied by a book entitled ik, Ophelia by Katja Rodenburg. The other exhibition was entitled. "Ophelia, Sehnsucht, melancholie en doodsverlangen. (Ophelia, Sehnsucht, melancholia and desire for death)." Held at the Arnhem Museum of Modern Art (21 February to 10 May 2009), it too was accompanied by a book, Ophelia, Sehnsucht, melancholie en doodsverlangen, edited by Catrien Santing, Flos Wildschut, and Krien Clevis. Eight years earlier and referring to Millais's painting 

as "a postcard favorite of visitors to the Tate," the catalogue of the 2001 art exhibition at the Mead Art Museum entitled "The Myth and Madness of Ophelia" included discussion of Millais's work and a full-page color reproduction of it.[18]

    No image of Ophelia has entered so strongly into our cultural consciousness. Endlessly reproduced, Millais's painting is frequently copied digitally and posted on the websites under discussion here. It has also been a key influence on certain of the films that have included Ophelia's death.[19] Long the received image of Ophelia's fate, it is, as just mentioned, almost as recognizable as Hamlet, the man with the skull.[20] Recently, the television series Cold Case included an episode in January 2004, in which the bodies of two female murder victims were posed after their deaths to look like Millais's Ophelia. Implicit was the expectation that the audience would recognize and enjoy this parallel. Two years later, in the Japanese TV anime series Ergo Proxy, Episode 14 (shown 10 June 2006) written by Naruki Nagakawa alluded to Millais's painting by posing the main female character in the same position as Millais's Ophelia. Significantly, in the 2007 dubbed English version, the episode was titled "Someone Like You/Ophelia." Yet another striking re-working of Millais's work, described elsewhere in this web essay, provides a humorous home page image for a wine-loving blogger.

    Though not directly referencing Millais's painting, but perhaps worth a passing mention here, is the 2006 pilot for the British TV detective series Lewis (a spin-off from the Inspector Morse series). This episode included many Hamlet allusions in its dialogue and plot, and also in its character roles. Among these last is an Ophelia figure who attempts suicide by walking into a river with a bag loaded with heavy stones on her back. Unlike the Ophelia in the painting, she does not remain floating but sinks almost immediately below the surface of the water.

    In a great many instances, Millais's painting seems to be the foundation upon which so much has been built. The creator of the Yahoo three-part image group entitled "Ophelia's Pool," for example, gives special prominence to Millais's work before offering access to an especially large number of photographs and art works that, it is implied, follow the iconographic topos established by Millais. During the Millais exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum (Amsterdam) in February-May 2008, a parallel exhibition took place, featuring the work of some thirty contemporary photographers. This was entitled "Ik, Ophelia" (Me, Ophelia). It was in essence a homage to Millais's appropriation of Shakespeare's Ophelia and an opportunity for leading artists to display further versions of the dying or dead character.[21] Recognizing the popularity of Millais's Ophelia and its reworkings, the organizers set up a "John Everett Millais" public group on Flickr and invited subscribers to the photo-sharing site to add their own images to the group.[22] This initiative has attracted a number of works that appropriate Millais's Ophelia, among them being a striking conflation by Hank Conner of a digital copy of part of Millais's painting with his own photograph of a lake in Florida, the surface of which is covered with water lily leaves.[23] Not only does he remix two images to make a third, but he quotes below the final lines of Gertrude's speech and follows them with the final stanza of Tennyson's "Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal" :

Now folds the lily all her sweetness up,

And slips into the bosom of the lake.

So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip

Into my bosom and be lost in me.

Leaving aside the obvious aptness of linking Ophelia with the lily that "slips into the bosom of the lake," and leaving aside the aptness in this instance of the reference to a lake, the inclusion of Tennyson's text transforms Ophelia, as transmuted through Millais's painting, from implicit to explicit object of male desire. Jokingly, Conner says of his image, "With an enormous apology to the great Millais, I have combined two of my favorite images. Ophelia is far, far away from Denmark, but this little lake in Florida is not a bad place to spend eternity." Ophelia is thus not only transmuted, but she is transported to a new habitation in the artist's own world, his favorite lake in Florida.

    Another example from this group is a work by "coal2k", made just after re-reading Hamlet.[24] Accompanied by the text "Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia," the image of a bare-breasted Ophelia is layered over a dark background texture, suggestive of luxurious bedding but simultaneously echoing the dense texture of the natural foliage that provided the background to Millais's painting. Here the latent mature sexuality of Millais's Ophelia is made explicit, and further emphasized by the elaborate and costly-looking bracelet she wears on her left wrist. In a recent study of paintings on Shakespeare subjects, Stuart Sillars has briefly discussed the implicit sexuality of Millais's portrait of Ophelia, noting that Hamlet failed to understand it, "as have generations of critics and readers."[25] Not so coal2k. Ironically, however, the blogger who subsequently responded to coal2k's work seems to have missed the point, since he suggested that the image would have been better without the bracelet, which he found distracting,.

    Other art works depicting Ophelia, virtually all from the nineteenth century, are also often reproduced on Web 2.0 sites, though not nearly as often as Millais's work. These, too, feed into the common familiarity with the subject. The most popular are paintings by Eugene Delacroix (1853), Alexandre Cabanel (1880), John William Waterhouse (1889, 1894, 1910), Paul Steck (1895), and Odilon Redon (1905). Digital copies of these works also appear in video collections of art works depicting Ophelia. Arranged into slide shows, they are then generally accompanied by music, Natalie Merchant's 1998 "Ophelia" being a favorite.[26] 

[Eugene Delacroix, Ophelie (1853)]

Go to:

Section 1. Introduction: Ophelia and Web 2.0

Section 3. Ophelia Images and John Everett Millais

Section 4. Ophelia in Bath Tubs and Swimming Pools

Section 5. Self-Portraits as Ophelia

Section 6. Fragmentation and Absence: Postmodern Images of Ophelia

Section 7. Some Concluding Thoughts on Ophelia and Web 2.0

Section 8. Principal Video- and Photo-sharing Websites Consulted

[16] Alan R. Young, "Ophelia in the Eighteenth-Century Visual Arts" in Emblem Studies in Honour of Peter M. Daly, edited by Michael Bath, Pedro F. Campa, and Daniel S. Russell (Baden-Baden: Verlag Valentin Koerner, 2002), 239-71; and Alan R. Young, Hamlet and the Visual Arts, 1709-1900 (Newark: U of Delaware P, 2002), 323-45.

[17] http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?workid=9506&searchid=23619&tabview=image (accessed November 24, 2009). On the stir created by the simultaneous appearance of the two Ophelia paintings, see Young, Hamlet and the Visual Arts, 331.

[18] See, ik, Ophelia by Katja Rodenburg (Amsterdam: Uitgevery Sinds, 2007); Ophelia, Sehnsucht, melancholie en doodsverlangen, edited by Catrien Santing, Flos Wildschut, and Krien Clevis (Amsterdam: De Buitenkant, 2009); and The Myth and Madness of Ophelia (Amherst, Massachusetts: Amherst College, 2001), 18-19.

[19] See, for example, the movies of Svend Gade and Heinz Schall (1920) (see, http://www.britannica.com/shakespeare/art-75858. Accessed January 13, 2010), Laurence Olivier (1948), Grigori Kozintsev (1964), Franco Zeffirelli (1990), Kenneth Branagh (1996), and Michael Almereyda (2000). See Kenneth Branagh, "Hamlet" by William Shakespeare: Screenplay and Introduction (New York: Norton, 1996), 141, 207; Hanna Scolnicov, "Intertextuality and Realism in Three Versions of Hamlet: The Willow Speech and the Aesthetics of Cinema" in Shakespeare and the Visual Arts, edited by Holger Klein and James L. Harner (Lewiston: Mellen, 2000), 227-37 (esp. 230-3); and R. Scott Fraser, "On Ophelia" in Shakespeare and the Visual Arts, 238-59 (esp. 247).

[20] Young, Hamlet and the Visual Arts, 340.

[21] The book by Katja Rodenburg that was published following the exhibition (see above) includes detailed discussion of Millais. On its cover is reproduced Hellen van Meene's 2006 untitled dead Ophelia, but at the start of the book, which contains reproductions of a number of works in the exhibition, is a double-page reproduction of Millais's work.

[25] Painting Shakespeare: The Artist as Critic, 1720-1820 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006), 306.