Those of you familiar with the work of Sir John Everett Millais and/or Shakespeare’s Hamlet will know that this is a painting of Ophelia singing before she drowns in a river (1851-2). I’m not sure why I find it, and other images like it, so fascinating. Yes, the painting is eye-catchingly vibrant, beautifully composed and exquisitely detailed. But I also think it has a kind of – for lack of a better word – poetic quality that derives largely from its subject matter, and I find this quality simultaneously intriguing and baffling (I’m very aware that I’m echoing Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ (1846) here).
Apparently I’m not the only one: Ophelia is one of the most acclaimed and imitated pre-Raphaelite paintings, and artistic representations of female death by drowning abound in both historical and contemporary contexts. What is it about the aestheticised spectacle of female death (a realistically grim and unpleasant topic) that holds our attention? As someone who is interested in photography, and particularly in what might be termed ‘conceptual’ or ‘narrative’ photography, which often borrows from literature, I’ve browsed through countless digital image repositories and come across a surprisingly large number of Ophelia-esque pictures. Here are just a few examples:
There are many more, all equally stunning (which I know is a bizarre word to apply to any representation of death). There are countless literary (not to mention filmic) references, too, made by authors ranging from Fyodor Dostoevsky to Arthur Rimbaud to T.S. Eliot to Margaret Atwood, who gave a lecture entitled ‘Ophelia Has a Lot to Answer For’ at the Stratford Festival in September, 1997.
Unsurprisingly, critics have long been engaged in debate about the aesthetic, symbolic and cultural implications of these sorts of images. In his essay ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ (1846), for example, Edgar Allan Poe argues controversially that ‘the death … of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world’ because it marks the moment at which death (the supremely ‘melancholy’ topic) ‘most closely allies itself to Beauty’. Elisabeth Bronfen both elaborates on and problematises this assertion in Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic, contending, in an argument that is far too sophisticated to outline here, that artistic representations of female death are often symptomatic of androcentrism.
‘Poetic’ or not, it’s clear that these depictions – especially those featuring water – hold a certain kind of (counter-intuitive) appeal. I’m still trying to figure out why, and hopefully in future I’ll be able to research and write a paper on this topic, but for now I’m quite happy to be stumbling across images online that suggest that many people share my interest.
Header image: Sir John Everett Millais, ‘Ophelia’ (1851-2). © Tate Britain.