John William Waterhouse's Ophelia is one of the most recognizable and beautiful examples of Pre-Raphaelite paintings
John William Waterhouse was an English painter of the Victorian era. He commenced his career painting in a highly traditional and academic style before moving towards techniques and compositions favored by the Pre Raphaelite artists.
Waterhouse studied at the Royal Academy of Art based at Burlington House, London, and quickly established a name for himself, exhibiting at their summer exhibitions. Waterhouse's depictions of ancient Greece and his oil paintings of scenes by some of the literary giants such as Ovid, Homer, Tennyson, Keats, and Shakespeare gained widespread admiration.
Today, John William Waterhouse paintings are famed for their representation of women, particularly from the legends of King Arthur and Greek mythology.
Ophelia is part of a series of four oil paintings by John William Waterhouse. Each painting references the character “Ophelia” from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
In the play, Hamlet rejects his former love, Ophelia. Her character has since become one of Western literature's most famous tragic heroines. The themes of innocence and madness, love, beauty, betrayal, and grief are evident in her untimely death.
It’s a theme that particularly fascinated Waterhouse and Pre-Raphaelite artists. However, as an iconic representation of female fragility, artists such as John Everett Millais and Eugene Delacroix tackled this famous fictional character.
While Millais represents Ophelia already floating in the water, Waterhouse shows her near the water’s edge. This artistic choice foreshadows the woman’s imminent death and raises the piece's tension.
The 1910 Waterhouse painting characterizes Ophelia as an adult woman with flowers in her hair. Despite her maturity, she holds a bunch of freshly picked blooms, linking her metaphorically to innocence and nature.
By contrast, in a previous version (painted in 1889), Waterhouse shows Ophelia dressed in white, reclining in a field surrounded by wildflowers and trees. Here, she appears young and tragically naïve.
In another depiction (painted in 1894), Ophelia sits on a log over a lake. This version depicts the last moments before her death, contrasting Ophelia’s opulent dress with her natural surroundings. Her innocent white form further juxtaposes with the dark, black waters below.
Waterhouse’s 1910 Ophelia was his last and most dramatic depiction of the heroine. In this painting, Ophelia appears older and more mature than the young and naïve girl present in earlier works.
Her blue and crimson gown now replaces the virginal white dress. Standing right at the forefront of the painting, she gazes directly at the viewer and commands the pictorial space. She could be sending a warning, seeking help, or chastising us.
In this last painting, Ophelia’s right hand steadies her on the tree as she lifts her skirts, ready to step into the water below. Two young children are visible in the background, unaware as Ophelia approaches her fate.
Ophelia by John William Waterhouse is an example of Pre-Raphaelite art. It also draws upon the Romanticism movement, focusing on the woman’s inner thoughts and deep emotions.
Indeed, Romanticism emphasizes individualism, connections with nature, and glorifying the past. These are all aspects Waterhouse’s art demonstrates in abundance.
Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1910, the painting combines Pre-Raphaelite subject matter (the Shakespearean character Ophelia in neo-medieval dress) with bold, impressionistic technique. In this way, Ophelia represented Waterhouse attempting to bridge the gap between the Pre-Raphaelite artists and the Newlyn School.
The Newlyn School (based in Cornwall) prized expressive painterly brushwork but rejected the Pre-Raphaelite literary focus. On the other hand, the Pre Raphaelite movement championed the principles of history and imitation of nature (mimesis) as the central focus of art.
By combining the two styles and injecting a romantic focus on intense emotion, Waterhouse creates a unique and utterly compelling portrait.
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