When visiting Manchester Art Galley, I spent some time in front of Arthur Hughes’ Ophelia which is a fascinating image illustrating the moment just before Ophelia drowns in the ‘weeping brook’. The shape of the canvas draws attention immediately to the image and the words on the frame are a reminder of Shakespeare’s language, but not quoting directly from the play.
For me Arthur Hughes’ Ophelia looks like a girl on the edge of death as she totters on the bank of the river facing the stagnant water. It’s as if the evening turning from dusk to dark is a metaphor for the end of the girl’s life. The image is of the fragile consumptive girl who seems to be both alive and dead at the same time. Her skin is grey and her white dress seems like the shroud that will wrap her up in death. The bat flies ominously in the lower left of the painting and the flowers, which bring spots of colour to the image, are wilting and dieing. The bluebells fall into Ophelia’s lap and others, which are destroyed, float limp on the water’s surface.
It’s still hard to believe that Hughes’ Ophelia was exhibited at the same time as Millais’. They are such different images, yet neither can be described as realistic, and are of the artist’s imagined view of Gertrude’s reported speech. I feel that Hughes’ is a much more pessimistic image than Millais’ because there is no sense that Ophelia will be at peace in death.