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The Transformative Power of the Arts in Victorian and Edwardian Culture and Society
4. The Transformative Power of Intermediality

Tracing Ophelia from Millais to Contemporary Art: Literary, Pictorial and Digital Icons

Une image flottante : les métamorphoses d’Ophélie dans la littérature et les arts du xixe siècle à nos jours
Laurence Roussillon-Constanty


Depuis les années 1980, décennie au cours de laquelle la critique féministe a véritablement acquis ses lettres de noblesse, Ophélie, tableau emblématique du peintre préraphaélite John Everett Millais (1851-1852) n’a cessé d’être interprété comme un manifeste dénonçant la tyrannie d’une société patriarcale au sein de laquelle la femme semble n’avoir d’autre choix que de se conformer aux exigences masculines, se trouvant réduite au rôle de femme-objet. Parallèlement, les recherches portant sur le personnage d’Ophélie chez Shakespeare ont montré les contradictions inhérentes à sa nature et révélé un paradoxe : alors que dans les productions shakespeariennes, son rôle fut souvent interprété par des chanteurs, sa présence n’a cessé de croître à travers d’autres formes d’art (la musique, la peinture, le cinéma). Point de départ de cet article, le tableau de Millais est ici envisagé à travers ces différentes reprises comme modèle, miroir et repoussoir d’une féminité non pas flottante, mais fluctuante.

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Texte intégral

‘As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element’

(Shakespeare, Act IV, sc. 7)

1Since its first exhibition, John Everett Millais’s oil painting, Ophelia (1851–1852),1 has attracted wide critical attention and generated a countless number of texts and images that have attempted to firmly ground the female figure in an established frame and locate her in a recognizable site both geographically and ideologically. And yet, in spite of all the critical reading frames applied to it, the picture retains its status as a truly iconic image as defined by cultural historian Martin Kemp:

An iconic image is one that has achieved wholly exceptional levels of widespread recognisability and has come to carry a rich series of varied associations for very large numbers of people across time and cultures, such that it has to a greater or lesser degree transgressed the parameters of its initial making, function, context, and meaning. (Kemp 3)

2The word ‘transgress’ calls for attention here and suggests transformation, progress and subversion as well as the crossing over of disciplines and media boundaries.

3How has Millais’s Ophelia come to transcend the historical frame of its Victorian setting and come to epitomize the dialogue between the arts? What is it in the painting that prompts viewers and artists alike to at once sympathize with the drowning heroine and identify with her to the point of staging themselves drifting along in the same fashion, suspended between life and death? These are the issues I should like to explore in this article in which Millais’s picture will be considered both as an object of material culture and as a ‘metamorphic image’ (Rancière 52)—a painting in its own right but also a symptom, an open tomb in which to bury one’s deepest anxiety or a screen onto which one can project one’s innermost desire. Starting with a few considerations on Millais’s original painting, this article aims to pursue the spectral presence of Ophelia across time and across the arts to demonstrate how the female figure resonates in various texts and images from literature to contemporary culture testifying to the mutability and lasting modernity of what could be termed the ‘Opheliac’ syndrome.

Ophelia I: Millais’s Ophelia (1851–1852)

  • 2 For a complete study of the editing of Hamlet for production, see Glick 1969.

4The first thing to be noted when considering Millais’s picture is the persistence of a paradox. Indeed the painting is generally considered by critics as a literary picture illustrating Ophelia’s tragic death as expressed by Gertrude in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but as several critics have noted, the event was rarely actually represented on stage, as Gertrude’s monologue was censured (Rhodes 89), so that the picture actually reveals a forbidden scene in the play: it creates a composition from a truncated text and restores it to the full view of a spectator who is invited to return to the written text of the play and reassess the character of Ophelia beyond the theatre.2

5Indeed, from the Restoration to the end of the nineteenth century, Ophelia’s part on stage ‘was often cut or censured due to the lewdness of her mad-songs, condemned as unsuitable and indecent. For this reason, in order to soften the bawdy language with suave tunes, Ophelia’s role was often interpreted by singers’ (Falchi 172). Even in the original play, ‘[c]linically speaking, Ophelia’s behavior and appearance are characteristic of the malady the Elizabethans would have diagnosed as female love-melancholy, or erotomania’ (Showalter 4) and her part considered as indecent both for the actors and the female audience.

6At the same time, Millais’s choice to depict this particular Shakespearean heroine is far from unique: according to Carol Solomon Kiefer and Richard Altick, during the nineteenth century, Ophelia was the single most represented subject of English literary painting (Altick 299). Both critics note that at least fifty images were represented in exhibitions of the Royal Academy alone (quoted in Falchi 175).

7However, what makes Millais’s painting so unusual is the choice of the moment depicted and in some contemporary viewers’ opinions what made it subversive was his unconventional treatment of the subject and more particularly the blending of various genres, as the picture can be viewed as a portrait, a landscape scene or even a still life.

  • 3 The most authoritative books on the subjects remain Nina Auerbach’s Woman and the Demon (1984), Bra (...)

8If one chooses to see the painting as a portrait, as most feminist critics have done,3 one cannot avoid considering that the image not only captures the moment of Ophelia’s passing but also dramatizes—precludes and foreshadows—the tragedy of the life and death of its model, Lizzie Siddal, Rossetti’s suicidal muse. The story of how the young model almost drowned and later caught pneumonia after lying in the bathtub full of water gone cold while sitting for the painting is a well-rehearsed one and has been told ad nauseam, so it only seems relevant to mention here as it may have fuelled the imagination far beyond the Victorian period as will be shown later.

9Beyond individual destiny, what the young maiden’s drowning epitomized for a Victorian audience was the fatal consequence of surrendering to one’s amorous passion. Like George Frederick Watts’s painting Found Drowned (1848–1850)4 showing ‘death by drowning’ as described in Thomas Hood’s poem Bridge of Sighs, Millais’s initial drawing of the scene5 could be read as a warning to young girls and as a visual moral message. Compared to those picturesque representations of the drowned woman, Millais’s picture differs in two ways: first, because it does not represent a dead woman but a woman about to die or attempting to die; second, because the distress of the young character is not linked to the urban environment typically seen as the cause of isolation and suffering for young girls (London bridges, the Thames or the Seine river).6 As contemporary viewers noted, in Millais’s Ophelia the contrast between the lush nature around and the sinking figure further reinforces the lack of empathy on nature’s part. The radical choice made by Millais explains the mixed reactions by contemporary critics at the 1852 Royal Academy exhibition, such as the following:

There must be something strangely perverse in an imagination which sources Ophelia in a weedy ditch, and robs the drowning struggle of that love-lorn maiden of all pathos and beauty, while it studies every petal of the darnel and anemone floating on the eddy (The Athenaeum, ‘Fine Art – the Royal Academy’ 25, 581).

10However, the blurred contour of the white floating dress and the abundance of flowers surrounding the female body may also be interpreted as a way to show Ophelia’s gradual metamorphosis into a water-nymph. In this regard, the way the flowers coalesce with the female body enacts the description of Ophelia in the play as ‘Rose of May’ (Act IV, scene v, line 156). Seen in profile, Ophelia’s entire figure merges with the landscape around, as if subsumed in nature. As William Holman Hunt and several sharp reviewers were quick to recognize, the painting is not just yet another representation of Ophelia but foregrounds the birth of a new art germinating at the crossroads of various genres and inventing a new form of landscape:

On looking closely into the painting, the finish is marvellous. The pollard trunk, the velvety green rind of the ‘envious sliver’, the moss and flowers and vegetable details, are positively mirrored as in a glass. The water-lily is the botanical study of a Linneus:–every incident and accident is depicted. Some of the leaves are green and vigorous, others are spotted, corroded and broken:–no form or phase is unobserved or omitted. Ophelia sinks so composedly and gradually, that the idea of one of Dr Arnott’s comfortable water-beds is suggested. Gorgeous as is her fantastic dress and gay the blue and red flowers of her ‘weedy trophies’, the flesh tints of her face and hands entirely hold their own’ (Athenaeum ‘Fine Arts: Royal Academy’. Athenaeum 1282 (22 May 1852): 581–83.

11In its detailed depiction of each flower stem, the painting is almost a botanical study—a feature underlined in the above commentary by the reference to Linneus. Interestingly, the reference to the contemporary physician Dr Arnott and his Hydrostatic Bed invention to prevent bedsores identifies Ophelia as a contemporary patient or invalid.

12However, the format of the picture as much as the recumbent position of the model (reminiscent of the contemporary paintings of The Lady of Shalott) also invites a liturgical reading of the image. The arched format and golden frame and the horizontal position of the young woman align the painting with pictorial and architectural representations of the dormition of the Virgin Mary—an episode that was frequently but differently represented in Eastern and Western Art since its first mention in an apocryphal work of the fourth century, The Transitus Mariae (The Passing of Mary). In Eastern art, the episode is referred to as ‘Koimesis’ (falling asleep) and often shows Mary surrounded by apostles around the bier she lies on.7

  • 8 It is one of a set of fourteen on the life of Mary that were produced between 1640 and 1657 for the (...)

13In Western art, the moment of the Virgin’s death changes through the centuries and tends to evolve and become one with the Assumption—a much more consensual episode of Marian Christianity. However, many famous visual representations must have been known to Millais, from Holbein or Fra Angelico or Mantegna in painting to architecture and tapestry: in Strasbourg where he travelled in order to sketch drawings for John Ruskin, the South portal of Notre-Dame cathedral shows a beautiful example of a sculpted dormition of the Virgin; inside the sacred building, the set of fourteen tapestries on the life of Mary8 could also have inspired him. Just as his fellow-Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848–1849), Millais thus uses apocryphal Christian scenes to enhance the mystical character of Ophelia whose lifted hands evoke prayer or even sacrifice. As Gay Daly suggests ‘Ophelia drifts with palms upturned, just breaking the surface of the water, offering herself to death’ (Daly 41).

14Suspended between life and death, Millais’s Ophelia is arrested in time and space, her body displayed and hidden from view, erased or diluted into the very surface of the water—an undulating surface that absorbs and reflects the female body and may stand for the transforming power of painting itself—a process by which bodies are both animated and commodified and eventually transformed into art. What this last reading of Millais’s Ophelia entails is a definition of the image as an unfixed, multi-layered entity that oscillates in time and space and produces new meaning at every new viewing. As Georges Didi-Huberman posits in Before the Image, Before Time: the Sovereignty of Anachronism:

  • 9 ‘Devant une image, si ancienne soit-elle, le présent ne cesse jamais de se reconfigurer, pour peu q (...)

Before an image, however old it may be the present never ceases to reshape, provided that the dispossession of the gaze has not entirely given way to the vain complacency of the ‘specialist’. Before an image, however recent, however contemporary it may be, the past never ceases to reshape, since this image only becomes thinkable in a construction of the memory, if not the obsession. (33)9

15Even grounded as it is in the nineteenth century, Millais’s Ophelia, an already mediated representation, is therefore bound to repeat and perform her textual elision and give rise to new interpretations that transform the experience of viewing the image as much as the viewer himself/herself. Described in Shakespeare as a ‘document in madness’ (Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 5), Ophelia becomes in Millais’s depiction an image that, just like the mask of the Inconnue de la Seine ‘functions both as an archive of old images and as a generator of new ones’ (Saliot 23), or to use Walter Benjamin’s term, ‘a constellation’ (Benjamin 478).

16All the unique qualities of the painting, such as the photographic detail of the flowers, the translucent light on the water, the spectral nature of the female body, or the half-parted mouth of the yearning face, participate in the composition of the painting. Together, they contribute to its dissemination in time and space that coincides with the transformations in technology, medicine, literature and the arts associated with modernity that occur in the course of the nineteenth century and reverberates in later twentieth century versions of the original image. This fusion between past, present and future is expressed in various ways by philosophers, art historians, psychoanalysts and artists from Aby Warburg, Walter Benjamin to Freud and Baudelaire and is unsurprisingly formulated in the most visual way by a figure who is herself a bridge between the Victorians and the Edwardians: Virginia Woolf. Here is what she writes in A Sketch of the Past:

The past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river. Then one sees through the surface to the depths. In those moments I find one of my greatest satisfactions, not that I am thinking of the past; but it is then that I am living most fully in the present (Woolf 98).

Ophelia II: Out-of-focus and on Screen

  • 10 ‘Parce qu’elle est tissée de longues durées et de moments critiques, de latences sans âge et de bru (...)

17What Virginia Woolf so poetically articulates is an interweaving between past and present that is enacted through the image which, at different periods, acquires a new legibility. Building on this notion that the past may inform the present and the present actualize the past, I should like to argue in this section that, beyond Millais’s picture and carrying it forward, later representations of Ophelia in both text and image build on its potential to outlive its immediate reception and resurface in the most unexpected places and across media—in the visual as much as in the literary or more broadly poetic realm. The process has been described in art history by Aby Warburg as Nachleben, a concept of survival which disrupts the chronological construction of art history and puts forward instead the constant re-inscription of the past into the present. This notion of survival coincides with Walter Benjamin’s notion of the ‘dialectical image’—his own attempt at creating ‘a new cognitive model with respect to images and history’ (Saliot 44). As Didi-Huberman formulates it, the notion of survival (Nachleben) entails an untimely art history made of ghosts, anachronisms, and shifts: ‘The survival disorients history, opens it up, complicates it. In short, the survival anachronizes history’ (Saliot 44).10

18Warburg’s view of the circulation of images implies that the same image may convey contradictory messages and point to opposite directions, a phenomenon he described as ‘a symptom’, that is an event that threatens the traditional modes of viewing and interrupts the course of representation.

19In the case of Ophelia, the symptom is made particularly visible first through photography, a medium that articulates the hypervisibility already present in Millais’s painting but that also blurs the boundaries between technology and art, scientific discourse and aesthetic experience. A complementary tool to painting at first, photographs were widely used in the nineteenth century by doctors and scientists alike, in the latter case to both document illness and provide a form of therapeutic help as showing the photographs to patients was believed to help them heal (Rhodes 132).

20However, the comparison between the popular photographs that widely circulated in the 1870s to illustrate the character of Ophelia (as performed by Ellen Terry and numerous lesser-known actresses) and those used by doctors in asylums to study female madness foreground the complex, palimpsestuous nature of Ophelia as a sick woman, muse and myth. Thus, if we compare Julia Margaret Cameron’s best-known photograph of Ophelia (incidentally presented to Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1867) with photographs by British medical photographer Hugh Diamond—who was the first to take pictures of a wide range of inmates in an asylum and whose images were shown in the first exhibition of photographs held at the Royal Society of Arts in 1852, the same year as Millais’s Ophelia was exhibited—one cannot help being struck by the similarities between the two kinds of images: beyond using similar technologies, these various types of images display an attempt to probe into the female mind and manipulate the camera’s focus to draw the viewer into the depths of the character’s psyche. Indeed, as Sylvia Wolf comments about Cameron’s photograph representing Ophelia,

. . . nothing in the picture alerts viewers to its subject. The sitter is draped in a black cloak. She is lit from above right, so that her nose and high forehead form a delicate silhouette. The model could be portraying any number of characters in literature or art. (Cameron appears to have sometimes had a title in mind when she began photographing, and at other times titled a work later in response to the way a picture looked.) Once the title of this photograph is read, we become aware that the white rosebuds at the sitter’s neck—both closed, the outer petals wilting—allude to Ophelia’s life cut short before its flowering (Wolf 51).

21Treated separately, one might think that Cameron’s and Hughes’s images are very different; however, taken together, it seems on the contrary that they both participate in the construction of the character of Ophelia as pure symptom. Indeed, both types of images ‘rely on facial expressions to present material evidence of insanity that will be linked to a fictional character’ (Rhodes 130). Beyond the context of their production, both instantiate the power of photography to reveal what Jacques Rancière calls the double poetics of the image, that is, its power to simultaneously reveal and hold the secret at the heart of all representation:

  • 11 ‘La photographie est devenue un art en exploitant une double poétique de l’image, en faisant de ses (...)

Photography became an art by exploiting a double poetics of the image, by making its images, simultaneously or separately, two things: the legible testimony of a history written on faces or objects and pure blocks of visibility, impervious to any narrativization, any intersection of meaning . . . . Photography became an art by placing its particular techniques in the service of this dual poetics, by making the face of anonymous people speak twice over—as silent witnesses of a condition inscribed directly on their features . . . and as possessors of a secret we shall never know, a secret veiled by the very image that delivers them to us (Rancière 11–15).11

22Like a magnifying glass, the medium of photography enlarges the figure of Ophelia, blowing up her face and expression so as to reveal her innermost nature, but her face—what Roland Barthes called the ‘face-object’ in his famous essay on Greta Garbo (Barthes 65)—remains enigmatic. In both cases, the title given to the photograph and the dress transform the young woman back into a literary figure—a legible sign—while paradoxically reducing her to anonymity, altering our perception of the image and exemplifying Henri Bergson’s remark that ‘Perception is never a simple contact of the mind with the object present; it is completely impregnated with memory-images which complete and interpret it’ (Bergson 174). In the same fashion, many of today’s contemporary artistic photographs of Ophelia use the viewer’s memory of the drowning muse as mediated by literature, art and even film. This is the case in Gregory Crewdson’s Untitled (Ophelia), dated 2000/2001, a digital chromogenic print in which Ophelia quietly floats in front of a couch, and in Victor Burgin’s Ophelia, which rehearses images from Alfred Hitchcock’s masterful recasting of Ophelia in Vertigo and tries to seize the oscillation between stasis and movement to be found in Hitchcock’s aesthetics.

  • 12 ‘le gros-plan n’arrache nullement son objet à un ensemble dont il ferait partie, dont il serait une (...)

23From the still to the moving image, the transition is effected via the technique of the close-up which further transforms the female subject into an icon, reinforcing Gilles Deleuze’s famous analyses of the movement-image as he writes: ‘the close-up does not tear away its object from a set of which it would form part, but on the contrary abstracts it from all spatio-temporal co-ordinates, that is to say it raises it to the state of Entity’ (Deleuze 95–96).12

  • 13 ‘Mais plus encore, le gros plan fait du visage un fantôme et le livre aux fantômes’ (Deleuze 141).

24Looking at these spectral images that travel from one creative mind to another, one feels the relevance of the critic’s intuition: ‘But, more importantly, the close-up turns the face into a phantom, and [abandons it to] phantoms’ (Deleuze 99).13

25In this new shift from image to film, music and back to literature in post-modern—and post-mortem—Ophelias, the very medium used in the making of these digital images questions the space or screen between the viewer and the object by showing the outside world as seen through the prism of narrative, memory and fantasy.

26As Simonetta Falchi notes, in the twentieth century, the figure of Ophelia ‘has drifted apart from her frail origins to turn . . . into a subversive heroine—symbol of the victims of patriarchal domination (Showalter 1985)—and then again into the emblem of adolescent girls in need of guidance, under the burden of societal pressure (Pipher 1994)’ (Falchi 1).

  • 14 For stimulating discussions of Virginia Woolf in the film The Hours, see Maria Leavenworth Lindergr (...)

27In Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides (1994), a novel that uses many pictorial references, the incipit presents the reader with a view of a teenager named Cecilia ‘slitting her wrists like a stoic while taking a bath’ (3) The narrator clearly describes her like a modern Ophelia as he adds: ‘they found her, afloat in her pink pool, with the yellow eyes of someone possessed and her small body giving off the odor of a mature woman, the paramedics had been so frightened by her tranquillity that they had stood mesmerized’ (3–4). In Sofia Coppola’s film adaptation (1999),14 the close-up on the girl’s half-submerged face and staring look epitomises her existential malaise and strangely turns her into a Medusa-like figure. Even when she escapes death, the young girl remains somehow haunted by it, eventually ending her life in an even more visually traumatic way as she eventually jumps out the window and kills herself.

28In the same fashion, in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (1998), a novel interweaving three narrative threads and heavily drawing from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Doris Lessing’s short-story To Room Nineteen, two of the three main female characters share a symbolical filiation with Ophelia. Stephen Daldry’s film adaptation of the novel further reinforces the visual legacy by using two striking filming strategies, first in the opening scene filmed underwater that shows Woolf’s drowning in the river, and then in a companion scene where Laura Brown, a fervent reader of Woolf, is about to attempt suicide and the water is seen flooding and receding in a ghastly hotel room. In both cases, the ‘Opheliac’ effect is achieved through the use of camera movement (moving underwater in the first scene and high-angle shot in the second case) and the use of water, a mediating element signalling the character’s gradual submersion. In both film adaptations, the intertextual references find a cinematic equivalent which transcends the initial Shakespearean image and demonstrates the haunting power of the original image which, even after losing its original meaning or form, nevertheless comes back like a ghost during the viewing experience. In all these recent reconfigurations of Ophelia, emphasis is laid on the medium itself that transforms the source image and returns it into a different, more effective spectre.

29In our digital culture, the figure of Ophelia has thus come to haunt the web in many different forms, reverberating and offering new narratives of the now mythical story, repeating the initial scenario of the budding-and-yet drowning female body, or changing it to accommodate new variations and revisions that accommodate various art forms. From Kate Bush’s pop Ninth Wave album cover (showing her wearing a life jacket) to contemporary lyrical adaptations (Moonlilies’s video clip to ‘Give me a cell’),15 modern musical productions show emancipated Ophelias not only escaping death but regenerating in water and deploying their voices with renewed strength. In both cases, women assert their desire not only to utter their feelings but to make one with their art and become pure medium: a voice.

  • 16 Accessed on 27/6/2018.
  • 17 In private conversation about the making process, Kristin McGuire writes that the project was ‘just (...)

30In that chain of images, Ophelia’s vital breath and poetic aura remain powerfully present, animating the undulating surface of the screen as if puncturing the layer separating each individual female model and connecting all muses together. Exemplifying this shift from the nineteenth-century model to today’s empowered female artist, Davy and Kristin MacGuire’s Ghost of Ophelia (2014)16—an art installation produced by using the water surface of an old basin as a canvas for the haunting hologram of Ophelia—demonstrates how new digital practices invite the viewer to participate in an immersive, aural and visual experience. Consciously rehearsing the original scenario of the Pre-Raphaelite muse,17 the installation, placed opposite other Pre-Raphaelite works of art, is a moving picture in many ways. As a homage to Millais’s painting, Ghost of Ophelia recreates the site (and sight) of the actual sitting—that is, the event of the painting—but also revives it and recasts it, allowing the viewer to identify with the female model and revive her experience. Once the object of the painter’s and viewer’s gazes, Ophelia has now become both a material and a virtual subject, actively reaching out to the audience and inviting the museum-goer, or the broader Internet audience of the video footage, to step into the work of art and revel in its transparent beauty—an aesthetic encounter achieved through physical movement and auditory sensations

31In 1985, Elaine Showalter famously wrote: ‘There is no “true” Ophelia for whom feminist criticism must unambiguously speak, but perhaps only a Cubist Ophelia of multiple perspectives, more than the sum of her parts’ (Showalter 95). In digital representation, whose salient feature is lack of closure (Rosen 319), every new artistic endeavour thus reverberates and enhances Millais’s unique painting through fluctuation and mediamorphosis, whereby transgression works across genres and media. Through the World Wide Web Ophelia thus lives on, inviting new narratives, inspiring new songs and outlining modern, haunting iconic faces.

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Athenaeum (The). ‘Fine Arts: Royal Academy’. Athenaeum 1282, 22 May 1852.

Auerbach, Nina. Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1982.

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Paris: Seuil, 1957.

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Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory. Trans. Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1911.

Bronfen, Elisabeth. Over her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1992.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1983. Cinéma 1. L’Image-mouvement. Paris: Minuit, « Critique », 2002.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 1: The Movement-Image. Trans. by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986.

Didi-Huberman, Georges. ‘Before the image, before Time: the Sovereignty of Anachronism’. Trans. Peter Mason in Compelling Visuality: The Work of Art in and out of History. Ed. Claire Farago and Robert Zwijnenberg. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2003. 31–44.

Didi-Huberman, Georges. Devant le Temps. Paris: Minuit, 2000.

Didi-Huberman, Georges. L’image survivante, histoire de l’art et temps des fantômes selon Aby Warburg. Paris: Minuit, 2002.

Dijkstra, Bram. Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture. Oxford: OUP, 1986.

Eugenides, Jeffrey. The Virgin Suicides. London: Abacus, 1994.

Falchi, Simonetta. ‘Re-mediating Ophelia with Pre-Raphaelite Eyes’. Interliteraria 20.2 (2015): 171–83.

Daly, Gay. Pre-Raphaelites in Love. Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1989.

Glick, Claris. ‘Hamlet in the English Theatre: Acting Texts from Betterton (1676) et Olivier (1963)’, Shakespeare Quaterly 20 (1969): 17–35.

Kemp, Martin. Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon. Oxford: OUP, 2012.

Kiefer, Carol Solomon. The Myth and Madness of Ophelia. Massachusetts: Amherst College, 2001.

Lindgren Leavenworth, Maria. ‘“A Life as Potent and Dangerous as Literature Itself”: Intermediated Moves from Mrs. Dalloway to The Hours’. The Journal of Popular Culture 43 (2010): 503–23.

Meessen, Valerie. ‘Post Mortem: Representations of Female Suicide by Drowning in the Victorian Age’. Master’s Thesis, Radboud University (Netherlands), 2016. Accessed on 27/6/2018.

Nicoletti, L. J. ‘Downward Mobility: Victorian Women, Suicide, and London’s “Bridge of Sighs”’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London 2.1 (March 2004). Online at Accessed on 27/6/2018.

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Rancière, Jacques. The Future of the Image. Trans. Gregory Elliott. Verso, 2009.

Rhodes, Kimberley. Ophelia and Victorian Visual Culture: Representing Body Politics in the Nineteenth Century. London: Ashgate, 2008.

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Showalter, Elaine. ‘Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism’. Shakespeare and the Question of Theory. Ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, New York: Routledge, 1985. 77–94.

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1 To access the painting, click here: Accessed on 27/6/2018.

2 For a complete study of the editing of Hamlet for production, see Glick 1969.

3 The most authoritative books on the subjects remain Nina Auerbach’s Woman and the Demon (1984), Bram Dijkstra’s Idols of Perversity (1986) and Elisabeth Bronfen’s Over her Dead Body (1992).

4 The painting can be viewed here: Accessed on 27/6/2018.

5 See Millais’s 1858 etching of the episode: Accessed on 27/6/2018.

6 See L. J. Nicoletti’s article: ‘Downward Mobility: Victorian Women, Suicide, and London’s “Bridge of Sighs”’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London 2.1 (March 2004).
See also Valerie Meessen, Post Mortem: Representations of Female Suicide by Drowning in the Victorian Age, 35–40.

7 For a stimulating illustrated discussion of this theme, see: Accessed on 27/6/2018.

8 It is one of a set of fourteen on the life of Mary that were produced between 1640 and 1657 for the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. They were paid for in part by Cardinal Richelieu. The Cathedral chapter of Strasbourg purchased them from Notre Dame in 1789.

9 ‘Devant une image, si ancienne soit-elle, le présent ne cesse jamais de se reconfigurer, pour peu que la dépossession du regard n’ait pas complètement cédé la place à l’habitude infatuée du “spécialiste”. Devant une image – si récente, si contemporaine soit-elle –, le passé en même temps ne cesse de se reconfigurer, puisque cette image ne devient pensable que dans une construction de la mémoire, si ce n’est de la hantise’ (Didi-Huberman 10).

10 ‘Parce qu’elle est tissée de longues durées et de moments critiques, de latences sans âge et de brutales résurgences, la survivance finit par anachroniser [sic] l’histoire’ (Didi-Huberman 87).

11 ‘La photographie est devenue un art en exploitant une double poétique de l’image, en faisant de ses images, simultanément ou séparément, deux choses : les témoignages lisibles d’une histoire écrite sur les visages et les objets et des purs blocs de visibilité imperméables à toute narrativisation, à toute traversée du sens . . . . La photographie est devenue un art en mettant ses ressources techniques propres au service de cette double poétique, en faisant parler deux fois le visage des anonymes, comme témoins muets d’une condition inscrite sur leurs traits . . . et comme détenteurs d’un secret que nous ne saurons jamais, un secret dérobé par l’image même qui nous les livre’. (Rancière 20–25)

12 ‘le gros-plan n’arrache nullement son objet à un ensemble dont il ferait partie, dont il serait une partie, mais ce qui est tout à fait différent, il l’abstrait de toutes coordonnées spatio-temporelles, c’est-à-dire il l’élève à l’état d’Entité’. (Deleuze 136)

13 ‘Mais plus encore, le gros plan fait du visage un fantôme et le livre aux fantômes’ (Deleuze 141).

14 For stimulating discussions of Virginia Woolf in the film The Hours, see Maria Leavenworth Lindergren (2010), Rachel Noël (2010) and Linda Pillières (2004).

15 Accessed on 27/6/2018.

16 Accessed on 27/6/2018.

17 In private conversation about the making process, Kristin McGuire writes that the project was ‘just a film shoot, albeit a very difficult one as I had to immerge myself under water in a very unnatural position with my chest being weighted down in order to keep me underwater. It was quite painful, but then myth has it that Elizabeth Siddal also suffered considerably when Millais painted her submerged in water for his famous painting.’(Private email to the author, March 19th 2018).

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Laurence Roussillon-Constanty, « Tracing Ophelia from Millais to Contemporary Art: Literary, Pictorial and Digital Icons », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 89 Spring | 2019, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2019, consulté le 19 novembre 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.5438

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Laurence Roussillon-Constanty

Laurence Roussillon-Constanty is Professor of British Literature and Aesthetics at the Université de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour (ALTER, EA 7504), France. Her main research field is Victorian literature and painting and she has published numerous articles on text and image interactions in the Victorian period and a monograph on Dante Gabriel Rossetti (ELLUG, 2008). She is currently President of the French Victorian and Edwardian Studies Society (SFEVE) and Secretary of the International Association for Word and Image Studies (IAWIS).
Laurence Roussillon-Constanty
est Professeur des Universités en littérature et esthétique victorienne à l’Université de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour. Spécialiste des rapports texte-image, elle a fait sa thèse sur la peinture et la poésie de Dante Gabriel Rossetti et travaille sur la peinture et la critique d’art (John Ruskin). Présidente de la Société Française des Études Victoriennes et Edouardiennes, elle est membre de IAWIS depuis 2002 et Secrétaire de l’association depuis 2017. Elle est l’auteure d’une monographie : Méduse au miroir. Esthétique romantique de Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Grenoble : ELLUG, 2008) et a co-édité plusieurs ouvrages dont un ouvrage de traduction de textes de John Ruskin. Elle s’intéresse également au rapport entre art, science et littérature. Le dernier volume d’articles qu’elle a coordonné (avec Rachel Dickinson) porte sur le rapport entre texte et textile : Laurence Roussillon-Constanty et Rachel Dickinson, Converging Lines: Needlework in English Literature and Visual Arts, E-rea [En ligne], 16.1 | 2018, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2018, consulté le 31 mars 2019. URL : Ses autres publications incluent Outsiders Looking in. The Rossettis Then and Now, dirigé par David Clifford & Laurence Roussillon (London: Anthem Press, 2003) ; L’éblouissement de la peinture. Sélection de textes tirés de Modern Painters de John Ruskin, auteurs Fabienne Gaspari, Lawrence Gasquet, Laurence Roussillon-Constanty (Pau : Presses Universitaires de Pau, 2006) ; Sciences, Fables and Chimeras : Cultural Encounters, dirigé par Laurence Roussillon-Constanty, Dominique Vaugeois et Michael Parsons (Pau : Presses Universitaires de Pau, 2014). La liste de l’ensemble de ses publications est consultable sur le site du laboratoire de recherche ALTER de l’UPPA :

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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