Object of the Month: Ophelia

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Posted 21st August 2019

A transformation from page to stage to canvas...

G F Watts, Ophelia, 1863-4 and c. 1877-1880

James Boyle, Curatorial Placement Student 2019

Painted in 1863 and reworked in 1877, Watts's Ophelia provides the viewer with a double perspective. It may be read as a representation of one of Shakespeare's most famous tragic women, the troubled Ophelia from Hamlet. It may also be read as a portrait of Ellen Terry, the actress on whom the figure is modelled and to whom the artist was briefly and incompatibly married.

The painting was composed at the beginning of the couple's relationship when their love was ripe. However, the marriage was doomed to fail because of the spouses' starkly different dispositions: one a middle-aged, reserved artist often in poor health; the other an energetic, adolescent performer.

Nevertheless, Terry initially felt quite at home with Watts and his work, eventually writing in her memoirs that 'the stage seemed a poor place when compared with the wonderful studio.' The young actress sat for many of Watts's paintings and served as the perfect muse for Ophelia not only for her striking beauty and sombre expression, but for her ability to perform even in paint.

The painting itself presents the moment just before Ophelia meets her watery death in Act IV, scene vii, a moment which is reported but not enacted on stage:

There is a willow grows aslant a brook
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream,
Therewith fantastic garlands did she come,
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples…

The composition's dark willow and undergrowth, which have indeed been woven into a garland, the glassy water and the figure's forlorn expression are pictorially synonymous with the images described and performed in the scene from the play. All of these features are contained in the pregnant moment of the painting; that is, the specific point at which an entire narrative or scene is evoked in the one-dimensional space of a picture. By rendering this now iconic moment in paint, Watts allows the character of Ophelia to transcend the boundary between two separate artistic media: the visual and the verbal text.

In 1878, the couple now officially divorced, Watts reworked Ophelia and exhibited it at the Grosvenor gallery, while in the same year Terry performed her role as Ophelia at the Lyceum Theatre. The stage was where the actress thrived and where she found her fame; yet Watts's 'wonderful studio' is where her other Ophelia found her own 'stage.'

Watts Gallery Trust is a registered Charity. Charity No. 313612. All profits help us to provide excellent educational activities, stage critically acclaimed exhibitions, and maintain our collection, buildings and estate for future generations to enjoy.

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