Hamlet (and Ophelia) on canvas

John William Waterhouse's "Ophelia"

Seeing Hamlet recently at the Stratford Festival (Stratford, Ontario) reminded this art museum junkie that he has also seen a good deal of Hamlet, Ophelia, and other Hamlet characters on the walls of art museums. (See the Emsworth review of the Stratford’s Hamlet, in the summer of 2008, which starred Ben Carlson in the title role and the bodacious Adrienne Gould as Ophelia, in this post.) We checked our notes from our museum travels and did a little research.

From the late 18th century through the nineteenth, the urge to paint Hamlet was epidemic. Here, for instance, the noted British portrait artist Thomas Lawrence painted the actor J. P. Kemble as Hamlet. In a portrait of St. Peter, keys to the kingdom would dangle from the saint’s belt; in a portrait of St. Sebastian, arrows would pierce the saint’s breast. For Hamlet, apparently, a skull in the hand identifies the melancholy Dane.

The Hamlet painted in 1866 by Edouard Manet, on the other hand, has a sword at his feet, presumably in anticipation of the fatal fencing contest Manet - The Tragic Actor (Rouvière as Hamlet) (Natl Gall DC 1866)he is about to have with Laertes. Manet’s picture, entitled “The Tragic Actor,” is a portrait of the 19th-century French actor Philibert Rouvière delivering one of the soliloquies from Hamlet. According to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to which the painting belongs, Rouvière was noted for his “highly pitched, emotional performances” in Hamlet.

Painters tended to paint the moments of high melodrama in the play, as played by the celebrated Shakespeare actors and actresses of the day. The French romanticist Eugene Delacroix, for instance, portrayed Hamlet with his mother at the moment when Hamlet is about to stab Polonius through the curtain behind which Polonius is hiding. Another Delacroix painting shows Hamlet, seconds later, contemplating the corpse of Ophelia’s unfortunate father.

Ophelia was the most popular Hamlet subject, especially among the pre-Raphaelites. Edwin Austin Abbey painted the dramatic moment during the “play scene” in which the players act out the murder of King Hamlet by Claudius:

Hamlet: Lady shall I lie in your lap?
Ophelia: No, my lord.
Hamlet: I mean, my head upon your lap?
Ophelia: Ay, my lord.
Hamlet: That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.

The best-known pre-Raphaelite, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painted Ophelia in the company of King Claudius, Queen Gertrude, and Ophelia’s concerned brother, Laertes, who exclaims, “Dear maid, kind sister, sweet Ophelia! O heavens! Is’t possible a young maid’s wits should be as mortal as an old man’s life?” Ophelia sprinkles herbs and flowers on the ground, saying, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray you, love, remember; and there is pansies, that’s for thoughts. I would give you some violets, but they wither’d all when my father died, they say a’ made a good end.” The picture is titled The First Madness of Ophelia.

Ophelias on canvas tend to be limpid, dazed-looking fantastics, like the John William Waterhouse painting at the top of this post. Another pre-Raphaelite, John Everett Millais, painted Ophelia as a corpse, floating down the river, covered with garlands, looking much like a drowned peacock. This picture is at the Tate Gallery (Britain) in London; Elizabeth Siddal was Millais’s model.

The gravedigging scene was also an attractive subject for Hamlet painters. Delacroix painted more than one version of the gravedigger holding up to Hamlet and Horatio the skull of the jester Yorick, the fellow of infinite jest and of most excellent fancy, who, Hamlet reflects, had played with him when he was a boy: “Here hung those lips that I have kiss’d I know not how oft; where be your gibes now? Not one now to mock your own grinning, quite chop-fallen.”

What about King Lear, the Fool, Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia on canvas? See this post.

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