Of all the complex and vivid characters immortalized in Shakespeare's Hamlet, no character was as captivating as the figure of Ophelia, long a subject of fascination for 19th century artists. 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 excerpt, 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)
Ophelia was widely portrayed by Victorian painters, the most well known image painted by Sir John Everett Millais (fig. 1). In contrast to Millais' more traditional depiction of Ophelia immersed in the stream, Cabanel chose to dramatize the moment when the tree branch snaps, no longer able to support her. Ophelia's melodramatic pose and outstretched left arm is highly stylized but adds an air of theatricality to the scene, which no doubt catered to contemporary audiences of the day. Her facial expression, while wistful, is at the same time beguiling and seductive. The weeping willow tree, a common symbol of mourning, expresses an inherent sympathy for the character. Particularly splendid is Cabanel's 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.
Cabanel's composition strongly mirrors that of Eugène Delacroix's Ophelia (fig. 2) in her reclining position and outstretched arm reaching 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, it is more likely that Cabanel knew the work from the lithograph - printed in 1848 and widely distributed.
Cabanel's portrayal of Ophelia and other Shakespearean characters such as The Merchant of Venice (sold Christie's New York, 11 November 1998, lot 75) was in keeping with the vogue for depicting subjects borrowed from history and literature. As favorite painter of Napoleon III, and one who had enjoyed commissions from King Louis of Bavaria and the Tsar of Russia, Cabanel was widely hailed as one of the foremost pompier artists of his time. Trained by Picot, he ranks alongside Bouguereau as one of the most beloved painters of his time. Bestowed with numerous awards throughout his career, he was also a respected teacher and was regularly elected to the Salon jury.
fig. 1. Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52, The Tate Gallery, London
fig. 2. Eugène Delacroix, Ophelia, 1853, Musée du Louvre, Paris
fig. 3. Alexandre Cabanel in his studio, Paris