Ophelia, the doomed heroine in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, rests within a luminous space filled with vibrantly-coloured flowers. Unlike her vivid surroundings, her face is drained of colour – we are not sure if she is dead or only sleeping. This association of youthful, but ill-fated, beauty with dreaming, sleep and death was a popular theme in much of the art and literature of the nineteenth century, particularly in its closing decades.
Odilon Redon (1840–1916) creates a deliberately ambiguous and dream-like response to Shakespeare’s drama, rather than a literal illustration of it. He makes full use of the rich colours of pastel to create a glowing and almost abstract design that evokes the effect of music.
Odilon Redon (1840–1916) frequently made reference to both classic and contemporary literature in his work, and the subject of the drowned Ophelia, taken from Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet (Act IV, Scene VII), was one he often returned to between 1900 and 1908. This was a period when Redon was moving away from monochrome drawings and prints, with grotesque and macabre subjects, towards a more lyrical exploration of colour using pastel and oils. This turn to colour was due in part to his contact with younger artists such as Paul Gauguin, Emile Bernard and Maurice Denis.
But the broader influence of Japanese prints is evident here too, particularly in the decorative flatness of the picture and the use of flowers. Redon employs pastel to full effect, creating an almost abstract design as glowing areas of intense colour are given jewel-like definition with swiftly-drawn black outlines or colour highlights. The use of complementary colours (a patch of orange placed against ultramarine blue, red and pinks juxtaposed with varieties of green) enhances the overall luminous effect.
Shakespeare’s doomed heroine, Ophelia, was a popular subject for nineteenth-century artists. Redon knew The Death of Ophelia (1844, Louvre, Paris) by the French artist Eugėne Delacroix, who also produced a series of lithographs illustrating scenes from Hamlet. He had also seen Ophelia (1851–2, Tate Britain) by the English Pre-Raphaelite, John Everett Millais, when visiting London in 1895. Millais’s Ophelia is a much more literal response to the details provided by Shakespeare’s text, but Redon’s treatment of the same subject is radically different. Unlike the almost scientific precision of Millais, who painted the individual plants and foliage on the riverbank, Redon creates an undefined space that lacks any clear indication of either location or scale. We see only Ophelia’s head, placed close to the picture’s edge in the lower right corner. Tilted back, and in profile, it is suspended or perhaps floating. In contrast to the vibrant flowers that surround her, Ophelia is drained of colour. Her closed eyes suggest she may already be dead, or possibly she is only sleeping. Garlanded by flowers, she merges with the plants that surround her.
The story of Ophelia recalled older narratives of doomed young love, such as the story of Orpheus, another popular subject in art, literature and music. This association of youthful and transient beauty with dreaming, sleep and death was a recurrent theme in Romantic and Symbolist art and literature in the late nineteenth century. In the 1890s Sigmund Freud began his pioneering research into dreams and the unconscious, which culminated in his landmark book The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1900. But the fate of Ophelia may also have had a personal resonance for Redon: in July 1888 he had watched, helpless, as his friend and collaborator, the young critic Emile Hennequin, had drowned.
Although it has a literary source, Ophelia among the Flowers is more than an illustration of a text. Instead, Redon creates a dream-like response to Shakespeare’s drama that functions as an image in its own right. As Redon observed, ‘My drawings inspire, and are not to be defined. They place us, as does music, in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined.’
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