A Study of Arthur Hughes’ Ophelia

Miranda McGill Prof. Yager ART202 – 052: Final Paper April 30, 2011 Arthur Hughes’ Opheia This is a study of Arthur Hughes’ Ophelia. Painted circa 1851-53, oil on canvas, it is 27’’ x 48 3/4’’. Currently, it resides in the Manchester City Art Gallery in the United Kingdom. The painting is of a young blonde girl, thin and pale, with a self-made crown of reeds atop her blonde hair. Her expression is sad, fixated downward. The female featured is frail, almost sickly looking, and is developed in both sorrow and insanity. Contrasting bright colors are used, and each object is painstakingly accurate, as was popular of the PRB when he painted this.

She holds flowers, dropping them slowly in the murky lake beneath the L-bend tree on which she is seated. The area around her is overgrown and wild, with very few trees. Behind her is an open field, ending at the horizon with trees. The sun seems to be setting. The setting is meant to be wild, untamed; the pond is infested with algae, the grass rises high around her. A bat swoops underneath the tree on which she sits, flying towards the viewer. The artist enclosed this picture with a border, making the painting semi-cirular, and around it he has quoted Shakespeare’s Hamlet; “There is a willow grows aslant the brook,

That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream; There with fantastic garlands did she come. Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples. There on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds Clambering to hang an envious sliver broke. When down the weedy trophies and herself Fell in the weeping brook. ” -Hamlet, Act IV, Scene VII. (Interestingly enough, his self-framing left out this quote “That liberal shepherds give a grosser name, / but our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them;”) The lines are thin and sweeping, creating a curved plane that is both vertical and horizontal.

The image is very two-dimensional, careful shading adding depth to the piece. It is very realistic, the moody image and bright colors a contrast to the somber theme. Both the setting sun, the pale girl, and her white gown create a contrast to the dark waters, and shadowy trees. The forefront is crowded, but behind Ophelia, the field extends openly until the woods on the horizon encloses it. All of this is enclosed within the frame of the work, where red and blue gothic script set the tale for the image.

Arthur Hughes discovered the pre-Raphaelites the year after he exhibited his first finished painting, and became inspired by their movement. Although never an official member of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood (PRB), he was acquaintances with many of the most famous members, like Millais, who also exhibited an Ophelia painting at the same showing, and had Hughes sit for his piece, The Proscribed Royalist, or Alexander Munro, which he shared an art studio with. The Pre-Raphalite Brotherhood was founded by William Hunt, Dante Rossetti, John Millais, William Rossetti, James Collinson, Thomas Woolner and F.

G. Stephens to reform art against the “frivolous art of the day”; hoping to bring English art back to the simplistic early 15th century art. They opposed the popular contemporary view of Raphael as the greatest Renaissance master. They painted highly religious or romantic subjects often, focusing on realism and relying on direct observation. There were two groups of the Brotherhood, and Hughes followed the second, formed by Dante Rossetti. The art was direct renderings of literary pieces, drawing heavily from Shakespeare, Dante, and, in more contemporary times, Robert Browning and Alfred Lord Tennyson.

They felt that the arts were closely connected, often encouraging artists to write and writers to draw. They defied and tested every convention of art that was popular at the time. And, importantly, precision was key to the PRB-choosing to represent each object with an almost photographic representation, although this often created disconnected pieces in the art. The PRB often drew with medieval idealism, with erotic and moody atmospheres. Symbolism often played a key role in their works, as in older literary pieces.

When it first showed at the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1852, it was the same premier of several other “racy” paintings by Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. It was displayed high up in the octagon room, commonly known as “The Condemned Cell,” for it’s relatively unknown artist, and one who was not a member of the PRB. John Millais’ was also showing his own Ophelia, and is quoted by Hughes’ as saying that “he had just been up a ladder looking at my picture, and that it gave him more pleasure than any picture there, but adding also very truly that I [Hughes] had not painted the right kind of stream. (Millais I,146). The picture, along with many of the other PRB paintings, was not well-received with feminists of the time, and other critics who considered the work “vulgar, ugly and jarring to the eye”. John Everett Millais’ painting, while depicting the same Ophelia, shows her just after she has drowned in the water. She is face up in the water that spelt her demise, her flowers both clutched in her hands and drifting around her, perhaps representative of illogical, nonsensical, and random madness. It uses the same bright colors, though highly dimmer so as to relay the dark mood.

The same flowers are feature throughout, their symbolic meaning from the victorian age preserved in both works. Her pose is less childlike than Hughes’, with a more martyr-esque flair, though slightly erotic in nature. Unlike Hughes’, Ophelia’s madness is not so tragic, in my opinion; it is simply tragic that she is dead, and the only mania to be found would be the lack of emotion in the girl. As with Hughes’ Ophelia, it was met with much criticism when displayed, though more highly valued by some critics (who simply attribute any errs to youth and enthusiasm).

Unlike Hughes, this painting remains to be Millais’ most well-known work, now valued around ? 30 million. In Hughes’ work, rather than depict the drowned Ophelia, Hughes shows a sorrowful young girl (in the frail, sickly pale form that the Pre-Raphaelites often painted) picking the flowers that she will gift others before going to her death. The symbolism is drawn directly from Hamlet, the scenic quote framing the piece. She seems to be a precursor to Tinker Bell, which is odd when you consider her image is supposed to the precious female disease or erotomania, or love-sickness(melancholy).

She is almost devoid of that, at first glance (More on this later! ). The flowers all possess meaning that is significant in the book, but Hughes adds one more flower in that is very symbolic, red poppies for ‘death’. Ophelia’s other flowers are daisies for innocence and violets for fidelity (which she does not keep), rosemary for remembrance and pansies for thoughts, fennel for flattery and columbine for male infidelity, and rue for female infidelity and everlasting suffering (it also was used for abortions in Shakespeare’s time).

The willow is known as a “sad tree” for it’s drooping effect. The setting sun could be representative of her imminent demise. The framing of the painting that contain Gertrude’s lines is representational of Hamlet, for Gertrude “frames” (tells) the story. Rather than have her near-death or dead, Hughes’ shows Ophelia with her crown, picking her flowers and sitting by the water in which she will soon die. The quote around the frame forecasts her death. Despite their not being an obvious meaning, outside of what the author provided, one may read much further into the work quite easily.

Consider; feminism. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet with a multitude of sexual innuendo from the Elizabethan era. We can see this painting of a furthering of male supremacy, and a suggestion of the ideal woman; mad, emotional, irrational, and nothing without her man. The depiction would be almost perfect, a young girl, sick, frail, mad, and therefore obviously dependent. Hughes, though, would become borderline (if not way over said line) pedophiliac, considering that his “youthful” depiction of this girl is… outhful indeed. One might place her age as being about 12. Perhaps, rather, this is an insight to his personal life. Rather than being a pedophile, it could be a reflection of his mother – forever longing, a maiden bearing sons to young and driven mad by society – or even a crazy ex-girlfriend, forever pining away in madness with her Arthur (refer back to the ideal woman). One might also see this as a reflection upon himself; trapped in an expectant society, Ophelia is him (albeit a feminine Hughes).

He is trapped within his own self-framing, his destiny written out while he is stuck in the madness that is the world he lives in, forever plucking petals from the flowers of his dreams. This would also seem to make him a homosexual. Continuing with the predestination idea of the self-framing, perhaps this is the despair of God. One could make Ophelia a martyr, a saint of sorts (consider the thorn-like straw atop her head), or representative of the Virgin Mary. Christianity was the dominant religion, and in it’s message it carries only room for God’s Will.

The virgin was doomed to despair, one could speculate [(“Virgin” yet pregnant? Right…. ) (Her Son was born to die)], and it was only at God’s Hand. Which would logically leave any sensible man to despair, considering. Perhaps young Arthur was trying to communicate a great theological truth. Personally, I believe, in sticking to the PRB creed, his meaning is nothing – he simply produced a person rendition of Shakespeare’s Ophelia. The meaning is in the framing, and perhaps he intended it to be a joke, for critics to be literally face-to-face with meaning, yet continue to speculate.

It is a literary piece brought to a life of sorts in painting, and the meaning is the meaning that was contained in Shakespeare’s own, not anything of Hughes’ creation (other than those poppies). And, considering four months of staring and analyzing this work would perhaps bias me to be negative, I still enjoy this work. While it is almost painful in its brightness, and amateur in its work, it is beautiful, and completely mad. It is perfectly tragic, emotionally captive, and fits wonderfully in my idea of what aesthetic beauty is. Works Cited Beckett, Wendy, and Patricia Wright. The Story of Painting. New York: DK, 1997. Print.

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