Eugène Delacroix. The Death of Ophelia, 1853.

Oil on canvas.

Delacroix painted an earlier and somewhat larger version of Ophelia's drowning in 1838. Delacroix chose subjects from Shakespeare's plays several times, but no play received more of his attention than Hamlet; he produced a series of lithographs on the play that were heavily influenced by the Paris performance of Hamlet in 1827, with Harriet Smithson playing Ophelia. In Delacroix's various depictions of Ophelia we see, according to Peter Raby, the first real elements of sexuality and eroticism:

There is a strongly sensual quality in the image, created by the loose, partly transparent clothing and the trance-like expression on Ophelia's features, as she lies poised between life and death. The mood is less poignant than quietly triumphant . . . . The same sense of barely suppressed eroticism is present in the lithograph of the mad Ophelia, kneeling, with bare arms and prominent breasts; this illustration reproduces the traditional stage properties of the veil mistaken for a shroud, and the hair decorated like a crown of thorns. Delacroix's works at the least testify to the potency of Ophelia as image for the Romantic period, a symbol both of wounded, self-absorbed sexuality and of the destruction of innocence by an indifferent world. (181-2)