By the 1860s Alexandre Cabanel had firmly established himself as an archetypal academic painter and principal pompier artist of his time. Alongside William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Cabanel was one of the most highly esteemed artists of Napoleon III and one who had also enjoyed commissions from King II of Bavaria and the Tsar of Russia. His work was often compared favourably with that of Bouguereau and Jean-Léon Gérôme and he was the recipient of numerous honours bestowed upon him for his work. Somewhat of an artistic genius, in 1839 he studied under Picot at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. It was Picot who impressed upon him the importance of selecting historical and literary subjects for the basis of his paintings; a lesson that Cabanel faithfully adhered to throughout his career executing with almost photographic verisimilitude to the details of historical costumes and settings.
Remaining faithful to historical and literary subjects as themes for his paintings, this work depicts perhaps the most complex and vivid of characters immortalised in Shakespeare's Hamlet, Ophelia. Such a captivating character, she has held the fascination of artists for centuries, widely portrayed by Victorian masters in particular, such as Sir Thomas Francis Dicksee, John Everett Millais (Fig. 1) and John William Waterhouse among others.
In one of the most powerful scenes in the play, Ophelia, driven to madness by the loss of her father, drowns herself in a stream near the castle of Elsinor. In the following extract, Queen Gertrude delivers the distressing news to Ophelia's brother Laertes:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. (Act IV, Scene 7)
Cabanel's composition appears to have been strongly influenced by the version of Ophelia, painted by Eugène Delacroix, in 1848 that features the protagonist in a similar reclining position with an outstretched arm for the branch. It is no surprise that Delacroix embraced the potency of Ophelia as a symbol of the Romantic Period and although he made numerous versions of the subject (Fig. 2), it is more likely that Cabanel knew the work from the lithograph of the painting that was subsequently widely distributed. In contrast to later, more traditional depictions of this scene where Ophelia is either contemplating her suicide or already immersed in the stream as in Millais', Cabanel also chose to dramatise the moment when the tree branch snaps, no longer able to support her. Although highly stylised, Ophelia's melodramatic pose and outstretched left arm lends an air of theatricality to the scene, which no doubt catered to the contemporary European audiences of the day. Imbuing the scene with an inherent sense of sympathy, the weeping willow tree, from which she falls, is a familiar symbol of mourning. Particularly impressive is Cabanel's almost photographic treatment of Ophelia's shimmering gold-trimmed silk dress and the flowers, both in the garland around her head and those trailing in the water. As she floats weightlessly upon the surface of the water, Ophelia is at once wistful, yet beguiling and seductive as Cabanel suspends her between life and death, capturing the moment that is yet to conclude this Shakespearean tragedy.