Greatly influenced by the melodrama of the Pre-Raphaelite style, John William Waterhouse fused the lingering genre of Symbolism with the French naturalistic style. His 1889 canvas Ophelia depicts a figurative reproduction of the Shakespearean character, reflecting the artist’s continued taste for mythological or literary figures. Sharing the Pre-Raphaelites’ eye for a dreamy, Romantic style, Waterhouse was greatly inspired by world literature, particularly of the Western tradition. Having been raised in Italy and in the opulent surroundings of a crumbling, classical Rome, he utilized his surroundings to construct haunting, sensual worlds which seem to be imbued with both a child-like innocence and the aggressive sensuality of a femme fatale. The tragic heroine of Hamlet was a popular theme for many painters and was one of the favourite subjects for Waterhouse who painted three variations on the character of Ophelia throughout his career. Seeing the character as the personification of the tragedy of what many male artists perceived to be female fragility, the subject also allowed the opportunity to depict her watery death, thus mingling the drama of demise with the shimmering qualities of a lake scene.
Yet, Waterhouse’s first Ophelia canvas painted in 1889 depicts the young woman lying in a field, fashionably dishevelled and gazing to a world beyond the viewer. Adeptly mingling the figure with the landscape, the artist suggests the unity between her fraught inner world and the wildness of the English countryside. In the background is a stream, hinting at the potential direction of her suicidal thoughts as she lays contemplative on the grass. In later versions painted in 1894 and 1910 Waterhouse would increase the intensity of the scene. His first attempt at a figurative reproduction of the literary character remains the most mysterious and brimming with potential before the young woman’s fate is tragically sealed.
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