In Act IV, Scene 7 of Shakespeare's Hamlet, Queen Gertrude enters with news of the death of Ophelia. The young girl, driven half out of her mind at having been cruelly rebuffed by Hamlet, has accidently drowned herself:
There is a willow grows askant the brook
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of cornflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do "dead men fingers" call them.
There on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clamb'ring to hang, an envious sliver [branch] broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide
And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch to muddy death.
The revival and wider publication of Shakespeare's plays helped to fuel the Romantic movement in France during the early decades of the 19th century. In 1823 the novelist Stendhal published his brochure Racine et Shakespeare, a call to the young minds of France to seek an alternative to the stultifying classical conventions of art inherited from the Napoleonic era. In 1827 the Irish actress Harriet Smithson electrified audiences at the Odéon Theatre in Paris with her English language performances of the roles of Ophelia, Juliet and Desdemona. Victor Hugo, the paragon of the Romantic movement in French letters, published his study William Shakespeare in 1864.
Eugène Delacroix worked on his sequence of sixteen Hamlet lithographs between 1835 and 1859, including one that depicted the death of Ophelia, dated 1843. He first painted this subject in 1838, and then four more times by 1853. Sir John Everett Millais painted his celebrated Ophelia (coll. Tate Gallery, London) in 1852, and the theme was later taken up by many Pre-Raphaelite painters.
Redon painted and drew nearly a score of works on this theme (cf. Wildenstein, nos. 891-907), many of which incorporate extravagant floral displays, embellishing the image of Shakespeare's "fantastic garlands." In the present drawing Redon reduces the flowers to those which Ophelia has plaited into her hair. Unlike Delacroix and Millais, who depict her body full length, Redon in characteristic fashion disembodies her head, which floats face-up in the stream, with the rising sun behind her. Other versions, with closed eyes, suggest her return in death to a state of nature, freed from the net of worldly intrigues that enmeshed and destroyed her. The present drawing, showing her with eyes wide open to receive the illumination of a new dawn, suggests her emergence in a new state of transcendent consciousness, existing beyond the boundaries of time and self.