THOMAS BALL (1819–1911)
Ophelia, after 1884
Marble relief, oval, 21 1/2 x 18 1/2 in.
Signed (along the shoulder line, at lower left): T. BALL
RECORDED: cf. Thomas Ball, My Threescore Years and Ten (Cambridge, Massachusetts: John Wilson and Son, 1891), p. 311 // cf. Thomas Ball, My Fourscore Years: Autobiography by Boston Sculptor Thomas Ball (1819–1911), Greta Elena Couper, ed. (Los Angeles,: Trecavalli Press, 1993), “Works,” no. 58 illus. and pp. 115, 120
EX COLL.: private collection, until the present
Ball modeled Ophelia in his Florence studio in 1884. The reference, of course, is to the tragic figure in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Ophelia, daughter of Polonius and sister of Laertes. Ophelia is in love with Prince Hamlet and believes he will marry her. His true feelings and intentions have been a source of conflicting interpretations for centuries. However, after Hamlet accidently kills Ophelia’s father Polonius, believing he was attacking King Claudius, his detested stepfather, Ophelia’s grief turns to madness. She meets her end when a branch overhanging a brook onto which she had climbed, breaks and she falls into the water and drowns. Again, this has been an argument for the ages, since suicides could not be buried in hallowed ground. The character of Ophelia, driven by conflicting loves to madness, was a favorite of nineteenth-century Romantic artists. She was painted by Delacroix and by the English Pre-Raphaelites John Everett Millais and Arthur Hughes. The details of her tragic story were familiar to the cultured clientele who visited Thomas Ball’s studio. His bas-relief portrait conforms to Ophelia as she was portrayed on the 19th-century stage. Ball’s Ophelia is a young woman seen in profile. Her eyes never engage the viewer, but stare fixedly into the distance, vacant and distracted. A string with intertwined flowers circles her head, only partially taming her disheveled hair. She wears a white shift with another band of flowers below her breasts. The flowers are in disarray, laden with the symbolic meanings that Ophelia has attached as she has plucked and distributed them.
Despite Ophelia’s central presence in the pantheon of Shakespearean female characters, the subject was an unusual choice for Ball. His only other venture into depiction of the works of Shakespeare was an 1848 oil painting of a Scene from King Lear, which he sold to the American Art Union and then traced and repurchased from a subsequent owner around 1870.