John William Waterhouse, 1849-1917


Oil on canvas

124.4 x 73.6 cm.

John and Julie Schaeffer Collection, Sidney, Australia

Angus Trumble points out that the artist produced "three major versions" of Ophelia in 1889, 1894, and 1911: "In the first version Waterhouse chose to represent Ophelia lying among the wildflowers in a meadow: the brook in which she later drowns is visible in the background. In this version, Waterhouse shows Ophelia in the moments before she died, sitting on the slanting bough of the willow that overhangs the brook. She is placing a garland in her hair, while other flowers are shown in her lap and growing among the reeds nearby, the 'crow-flowers, nettles, daisies and long purples/That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,/But our cold hands to dead men's finger's call them' (Hamlet, Act IV, scene vii). Certain aspects of the composition underline the mortal turn of events: the poppies in ophelia's hair, for example, laden with the symbolism of sleep and death; her eyes, which are half-closed; her pallor; the lankness of her hair, a feature specifically mentioned in the New Gallery's catalogue entry. The hem of Ophelia's dress is emblazoned with the heraldic device of a lion rampant, and she wears as a bejewelled girdle, low over her hips in the medieval fashion" (p. 104)