Oil on canvas, signed lower right
Image size: 33 1/2 x 56 1/2 inches (85 x 143 cm)
Original gilt frame
With the artist’s son, Millie Dow Stott Esq., until 1912.
Artist’s Studio Sale, Christies, November 1913.
London, Royal Academy, 1895, no. 679.
Paris, Societe de la Nationale des Beaux-Arts, 1896, no. 1179.
Berlin, VII Internationale Kunstausstellung 1897. no. 3533.
Manchester, City of Manchester Art Gallery, 1912, no. 339.
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In the 1890s William Stott exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy, mainly highly decorative works with subjects derived from classical mythology and literature. This painting was Stott’s 1895 entry to the Royal Academy and was subsequently exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1896 and then on to the Berlin, VII Internationale Kunstausstellung 1897. Shakespeare was a favourite source for Victorian painters, and the tragic romance of Ophelia, from Hamlet, was an especially popular subject, featuring regularly in the Royal Academy exhibitions.
The most popular and iconic image of Ophelia’s death was, and is to this day, John Everett Millais’s 1851 painting showing the confused and tragic Ophelia floating downstream on her back in a state of mad ecstasy, arms raised in a gesture of inevitable submission. However, although Stott chose not to pastiche this image, it seems highly likely that he was prompted to take up this subject, which had almost become a ‘rite of passage’ among Victorian painters, by the fact that in 1894 Millais’s Ophelia was presented to the National Gallery of British Art by Sir Henry Tate.
It appears that Stott was much influenced by John William Waterhouse’s version of the event, painted in 1889. Here, Ophelia is lying in a field of wildflowers her right arm outstretched along the ground, her left arm raised above her head. The top of her torso is twisted towards the viewer, whom she looks at with a confused stare. The similarities in the pose between Stott’s portrayal and Waterhouse’s 1889 version are striking, but in Stott’s picture Ophelia is lying on her side on the bank of the stream and her fingertips are immersed in the water.
Where Stott references back to Millais’ iconic 1851 representation of the tragedy is in his meticulous and painstaking execution of the surrounding foliage and flora. In this depiction of Ophelia one can see the painstaking care that has been given to every leaf, every frond and every flower, illustrating Stott’s obsession with subordinating the human presence to a mere detail within the harmony of nature.
William Stott, son of an Oldham mill owner, went to Paris in 1878, at the age of 20, to train with the classical French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme. He adopted a realist style of painting and achieved rapid success, being medalled at the Paris Salon in 1882 for his painting The Bathing Place (Munich). He became a leading figure in the Anglo-American artists’ community in Paris and for a while he was seen as one of the most progressive of English painters. In Paris, where he kept an apartment throughout the 1880s, he was exposed to the radical cross-currents of Impressionism and Symbolism and he made many influential friends in the artistic community.
On returning to England, he became a follower and close friend of James McNeill Whistler until his painting of Whistler’s mistress depicted naked as The Birth of Venus (Gallery Oldham) was exhibited at the RBA in 1887 and caused a rift between them. Stott turned his back on his realist roots and the stifling influence of Whistler and deliberately set out to find acceptance within the art establishment, and in particular the Royal Academy. At the time the Aesthetic Movement was in full swing and the Royal Academy, under the presidency of Fredrick, Lord Leighton, had become the undisputed sanctuary of the ‘classical’ strand of the Movement. As Christopher Wood noted ‘….the election of Leighton to the Academy presidency in 1878 did give impetus to the general swing towards classical subjects, both among younger artists wanting to make their name and among older artists ready to trim their sails to the new artistic breezes blowing in from Italy and Greece.’
From the year 1882, Stott always signed himself ‘of Oldham’ – both to distinguish himself from another Lancastrian son of a mill-owner, Edward Stott ARA (1855–1918) and to acknowledge his proud Oldham roots.
He died unexpectedly whilst travelling on a ferry from London to Belfast on 25 February 1900.