Πέμπτη, 26 Ιουλίου 2012

Ophelia Part2

John William Waterhouse

The man who painted Ophelia

The English late Pre-Raphaelite artist John William Waterhouse lived from 1849 to 1917. He had his studios and home in London and exhibited at the Royal Academy. In his time he was to paint several versions of Ophelia - most of those shown here on this page are his. He taught at the St. John's Wood Art School and served on the Royal Academy Council.

Waterhouse was married, but had no children and because his private life is not documented in any great detail, it is uncertain who the models were for his paintings - works which often depict beautiful and vulnerable young women drawn from historical settings, from mythology or folk law. Like all the pre-Raphaelites he was fond of the English Medieval period and of the age of chivalry and courtly love. Mary Lloyd, the model for Lord Leighton's masterpiece 'Flaming June' of the same period did pose for him at one stage. Among the Pre-Raphaelites there is a distinct 'type' that is instantly recognisable, with usually red or auburn hair, slender and frail and with a intensity of posture and a haunted look to the eyes.

The 1898 Waterhouse painting shown here is not of Ophelia, but that other tragic maiden from Shakespeare's vivid world of tragic characters:Juliet.

Elizabeth Siddal

the 'Ophelia' of her day

Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall was born in London in July 1829. One of seven children, her background and education were unremarkable but she developed a love of poetry at a young age, after discovering a poem by Tennyson on a scrap of newspaper used for wrapping butter! It would be intriguing to know just what poem it might have been!

See Tennyson's famous poem 'The Lady of Shalott' for an example of his work.

We know her today as the most significant face of the Pre-Raphaelite school of art and as the most celebrated model for Ophelia herself. She was 'discovered' by the painter Walter Howell Deverell in 1849 while she was working as a milliner and she soon became drawn into the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood of revolutionary young painters and poets of which her husband-to-be Dante Gabriel Rossetti was a central figure. She was later described by her brother in law William Michael Rossetti as: "a most beautiful creature with an air between dignity and sweetness with something that exceeded modest self-respect and partook of disdainful reserve; tall, finely-formed with a lofty neck and regular yet somewhat uncommon features, greenish-blue unsparkling eyes, large perfect eyelids, brilliant complexion and a lavish heavy wealth of coppery golden hair."

A lot to live up to for any mortal woman! Modern biographers such as Lucinda Hawksley have speculatet that Siddal herself may have been anorexic - she once told Rossetti that "she had not eaten for a fortnight."

The pressures in her short life were immense. Being the muse and mistress, the lover and model not only for Dante Gabriel Rossetti but for many of the other most important painters of the brotherhood, she also had talents as an artist in her own right, but these were constantly swamped and stifled by the men around her. The seeking of oblivion in the deep watery grave of laudanum was her fatal pre-occupation, despite being pregnant at the time of her death (as Shakespeare's Ophelia could have been, perhaps).

Even with her death in 1862, however, Elizabeth could not escape the obsessions of the men who loved her. Rossetti, melodramatic and completely 'over the top' as ever, placed his unpublished verses of poetry of which he had no copy, into in her coffin - only to have to retrieve them again some years later by having her body exhumed - a task undertaken at night by candle-light.

As a figure central to the artistic climate of the late Victorian age, Lizzie's legacy was also a studied image and style that featured loose clothing, flowing robes - without the stays and restrictive undergarments favoured by the women of the times. Her style was one of freedom, with long lines and clinging folds, and it became the signature and mark of women aesthetes and feminists of subsequent generations.

Anne Boleyn Today

Here's another Squidoo page (lens) I made earlier ...

England's most unjustly maligned Queen

What does Ophelia mean?

The message of Ophelia for us today

(The painting here is Ophelia by George Frederic Watts - 1817-1904. The subject is modelled by his young wife, the famous Victorian actress Ellen Terry.)

Health care professionals or psychotherapist working with adolescent females will sometimes say that at some stage in their growing up, many young women feel presurised, compelled to function within a narrow definition of what society and family interpret as being 'female.' They are expected to fit themselves into small, crowded and competitive spaces governed by fashion and custom, and to conform to commercial junk images of what they are supposed to look like, behave like and even to feel like inside. Faced with these pressures at such an emotionally vulnerable age, many lose their vitality and interest in life; their IQ and education suffer, and they can become victim to all manner of self-inflicted illnesses - coping with eating disorders, anorexia, depression, obsessive-compulsive behaviours, sexual promiscuity and drugs. That this can prove life-threatening is all too obvious, and echoes the story of Ophelia in a chillingly accurate way even in our own modern, rational age.


In the Shakespearian and Pre-Raphaelite masterpieces, Ophelia is a figure that is in transition, having to change rapidly due to simple biological circumstances from a child to a young woman in a very short space of time. At just stage of her life she is confronted with pressure from all sides, from parents, from her immediate society at the court of the king and queen of Denmark, and from a passionate and ever-increasingly deranged boyfriend (Hamlet) seeking to inflict revenge on her for his own failings to reach manhood and achieve justice for the crimes committed against his own father. Hamlet, too, in his own way suffers from an identity crisis. Being forced to become a whole man rather too quickly for his own good, he pays the ultimate price. But it is Ophelia herself who leads him to the grave and perishes much sooner. She is more vulnerable, more sensitive and ultimately becomes more confused sooner.

In our own times, just as in the Victorian era, young people - and perhaps young women in particular - are sometimes compelled to 'grow up' at a similar rapid rate. The girls, moreover, mature faster than the boys and have to confront their own demons earlier and more decisively, and in far less a span of time as well. The demands from fashion, popular culture and from parents and family seeking instant womanhood from their girls, can all take their toll on the developing psyche. We live in an age of Ophelia's. Learning to recognise this reality in our lives can be truly liberating - particularly for young women themselves. Recognising that Ophelia can exist within can be a life-saving and ultimately a life-affirming experience, enabling the individual to grow and move on through the crisis of adolescence into the safely of adulthood.

In a wider sense, this was precisely what was going on at a social scale in the latter half of the 19th century - in a society which was being compelled to grow up too fast, from innocent, rural tranquillity into bleak industrial adulthood. In doing so, it nearly destroyed itself. In taking Ophelia with it, however, and in cherishing her presence, it survived.