It just so happens, that yesterday in my 19th Century art history class we discussed Millais’ Ophelia. I originally touched on this topic in regards to Elizabeth Siddal as the model (Siddal Post #3).
Originally, I interpreted the painting as Ophelia being recently deceased. However, I wanted to add some additional thoughts on the matter while it’s still fresh in my mind (that contradicts this suggestion).
I’m not as familiar with Shakespeare’s work as I should be, but it is possible that in this painting, Ophelia isn’t dead yet. She floats in a stupor, with her lips slightly parted as if whispering a melody to herself before being drug down by the weight of her wet garments. This makes sense because her hands are held in such a way as to suggest there is still a touch of life left inside of her. Her cheeks also hold the faint glow of rosiness associated with life. Her life will end shortly after this moment though, so I think it was a deliberate choice to represent her with paler skin (that doesn’t have a healthy flush to it) to portray her transitioning from life to death.
As a side note, I didn’t even realize this wasn’t a typical “rectangle” canvas, but creates a round arc along the top. It may have been intended for a special frame or niche. I like to think that it mimics the way tree branches curve and encompass their surroundings like an umbrella though.
The last little detail (it’s better viewed on a larger image of the work) is that there is a little bird (perhaps a robin) sitting within the branches of the tree (on the left side). If only the bird could speak, it could take flight, alerting others of Ophelia’s dire situation.
I would love to hear what your interpretations of the work are, so comment away!
Image pulled from http://www2.tate.org.uk/ophelia/