Odilon Redon’s Ophelia Among The Flowers is one of the many pastels that take Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet as their subject. But this early twentieth-century piece, held by the National Gallery since 1977, offers a fresh insight into the character of Ophelia, whose greatest conflict, in the midst of chaos, appears to be with herself.
The painting is, in its own right, home to a number of conflicts. Most notably, there is contrast between the vivid pastel colours of the artwork and the landscapes that they depict. The floral crown supported by Ophelia suggests an appreciation of the beauty of the flowers around her, all resembling strawberries and lilacs, with flurries of blue interrupting the intensity of the green. But beneath the flowers, Ophelia appears to be fading away into the surrounding background, the strength of her character tested by the domineering force of nature, not unlike the struggle that she is compelled to endure throughout the play.
The painting illustrates a particular moment in the play, in which Ophelia finds her way to the brook, where she meets her end amongst the flowers that she has gathered. This moment, though frequently figured as a descent into madness, can also be interpreted as an escape from the patriarchal dominance that has moulded her into the person that she eventually becomes. In the final moments of Ophelia’s life, as represented in the painting, it can be said that she is finally at one with not only nature, but with herself. In death, she finds that what she has been searching for, she finds herself. Reflected beautifully by the imaginative form of the art, the density of the painting can be viewed as a portal into the demise of this tragic heroine, as she finally overcomes the conflict that has hindered her existence, a victory to be found only in death.
by Gillian Murtagh
‘Ophelia Among The Flowers’ can be viewed in room 46 of The National Gallery, London.