Since her creation, Ophelia, one of Shakespeare’s tragic young women, has been presented in various media from paint, to photography, to sculpture. The artist Bryan Organ produced this oil painting in 1973. The SBT acquired it comparatively recently in 2010.
Organ’s large piece clearly responds to John Everett Millais’ painting of Ophelia, held in the Tate's collection. The arched top of the portrait follows the same shape, and the line separating Organ’s murky grey background from the black water loosely apes Millais’ line separating black water from lush green landscape. The placement and colours of the few flowers in Organ’s Ophelia have counterparts in Millais’, though Organ has stripped most of them out. The most obvious mirroring is the positioning of Ophelia’s body.
However, the works are approached quite differently. Millais painted from life. His letters detail the difficulty he underwent to study the nature for the painting’s background, including finding himself “in danger of being blown by the wind into the water, and becoming intimate with the feelings of Ophelia when that Lady sank to muddy death.” His Ophelia, Elizabeth Siddal, whose modelling career began when she modelled Viola/Cesario for Walter Devereaux (Marsh, 16-18), lay in a tub of water heated by lamps for four months so that Millais might capture the likeness. While his depiction may seem romanticised to a modern audience, Millais represents the actual drowning, which was a rare choice in the period – most artists painting Ophelia at that time showed her at the willow before she went in the water (Rhodes, 89). Organ, by contrast, has worked from Millais, reacting to the painting, as opposed to designing a concept with a model or working from nature.
The stripped-down aesthetic of this painting is in line with Organ’s other works, such as his paintings of HRH Princess Margaret and HRH Prince Charles. It does not indulge any desire for beautiful and symbolic flowers, lush scenery, or delicately floating clothes or hair. The colouring is darker and harsher. Where Organ’s approach to painting royalty “stress[es] their normality, and not their nobility” and strips away the “usual pomp and circumstance,” in this case, his goal appears to have been to cut away all vestiges of romance and undermine any effort to be poetical about a young woman's death/suicide. Going further, where Siddal’s parted lips and languid lids suggest a living girl “incapable of her own distress” who will soon die, the blank gaze and closed lips of Organ’s Ophelia seem to suggest a girl who is already dead.
Since Organ’s 1973 piece, there have been other Ophelias that ape or adapt Millais’. Tom Hunter’s photo “The Way Home,” part of his Life and Death in Hackney series, depicts an Ophelia-esque young woman drowned in a canal on her way home from partying. Its rich green background and positioning of the drowned girl follows Millais’ style. Hunter returned to Ophelia in February 2016 when he staged the death of a well-to-do Ophelia in the Capability Brown-designed lake at Compton Verney. That piece was displayed in a recent exhibition at Compton Verney, along with Bryan Organ’s, on loan from the SBT. The colours in Hunter's rendering of Ophelia’s fate are darker than in “The Way Home” but still more vivid than in Organ’s depiction.
That same show also included “Ophelia’s Ghost” by Kristin and Davy McGuire. Described by reviewers as a stunning response to Millais, their piece used holographic projection against a pool of water to show the ghost of a woman in a white dress, clutching an almost bridal bouquet of roses, haunting the water. Unlike Organ, but like Millais, they surrounded her with flowers. Where Millais’ flower symbolism focused on her innocence and death, the McGuires’ red roses seem to suggest a disappointed and betrayed lover. Their water depiction uses the flowing hair and fabric Millais showed and which Organ stripped away.
As we examine the depiction of Shakespearian women, it is worth thinking about what is gained and lost by the changes Organ has made. On the one hand, he removes the romanticisation of suicide that one might see in Millais’ and others' approaches to Ophelia’s death. He emphasises the unpleasantness of what has occurred. However, unlike Millais and Hunter, Organ does not appear to have worked with a female model on this piece. Instead, we see Siddal refracted through Organ’s view of Millais. In addition, while one can find Siddal’s name if one looks, it is perhaps telling that descriptions of the McGuires' hologram do not include the name of their model. Carol Solomon Kiefer’s The Myth and Madness of Ophelia tracks a number of images of Ophelia, the models for which are often afforded no names. It is worth recalling, as well, that only one of the artists discussed here is herself a woman (though Siddal did produce poetry and some artistic works, including self-portraits, during her life). By extension, for the most part, Ophelia continues to be the object of the gaze instead of the subject who gazes.
Carol Solomon Kiefer, The Myth and Madness of Ophelia (University of Washington Press, 2002)
Jan Marsh, The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood (Quartet Books, 1995)
Kimberly Rhodes, Ophelia and Victorian Visual Culture (Ashgate, 2008)