J. W. Waterhouse’s ‘Ulysses and the Sirens’: Breaking Tradition and Revealing Fears

This dramatic painting illustrates an episode from the journeys of the Greek hero Odysseus (in Latin, Ulysses) told in the poet Homer’s Odyssey in which the infamous Sirens lured unwary sailors towards perilous rocks and their doom by singing in the most enchanting manner. By John William Waterhouse, 1891. / National Gallery of Victoria

Waterhouse’s images of Circe, sirens and sorceresses raise a number of questions.

By Michelle Bonollo

Mr Waterhouse selected for illustration the well-known passage in the twelfth book of the ‘Odyssey’ of Homer, in which the poet has described the passage of the wanderer’s vessel through the Strait of Messina, with Scylla on the one side and Charybdis on the other. Forewarned by Circe that he must shun ‘the heavenly-singing Sirens’ harmony’, Ulysses caused himself to be strapped securely to the mast of his vessel, and ordered his crew on no account to release him, however earnestly he might afterwards importune them to do so. He had previously taken the precaution to stop their ears with wax, so that they might be deaf to the alluring voices of the winged sorceresses, whose melodious throats poured forth

the sweetest strain
That ever open’d an enamoured vein.

Ulysses was enchanted with their delicious and beguiling song, and struggled to extricate himself from his bonds, but Eurylochus and Perimedes wound the coil of rope around him; and the sturdy rowers applied themselves with all their might and main to their oars; a fresh breeze filled the swelling sail and they shot past the Sirens’ Isle, and so escaped peril.

The Pictorial: Academy and Salon Pictures of 1891 (c.1891)

Ulysses and the Sirens, 1891, by John William Waterhouse (fig. 1)1 was purchased for the National Gallery of Victoria by Sir Hubert Herkomer, for £1200, in June 1891.2 The picture had recently been exhibited at the Royal Academy in London and had been reviewed at length in the British press. The critical interest centred on the artist’s interpretation of Homer’s Odyssey. At the forefront, seemingly, of most critics’ minds was one question: how far had Waterhouse stretched his artistic licence? Once the Ulysses reached Australian shores, Melbourne critics were quick to pounce on Waterhouse’s wayward interpretation of the Greek legend, holding the picture as evidence of the Gallery Trustees’ misuse of public funds. So passionate were the critics in questioning the literal accuracy of the picture, and in their insistence that there had been foul play with respect to its acquisition, that they generally overlooked a quintessential element of Ulysses and the Sirens: its depiction of women as femmes fatales, unleashing their all-encompassing and terrifying power over men.

This article will firstly survey contemporary responses, both British and Australian, to Waterhouse’s imaginative interpretation of the Ulysses and the Sirens legend. The place of the picture within the artist’s oeuvre as a whole – and within the broader context of depictions of women in the late Victorian era – will then be considered.

‘Half women, half birds’ and half right: assessments of Waterhouse’s Classicism

On examining the critical responses to Ulysses and the Sirens, we find that it is very clear that the main concern for both British and Australian commentators was the picture’s obvious departure from Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. When it was first exhibited, at the Royal Academy in 1891, Ulysses and the Sirens attracted predominantly favourable criticism from the British press. The critics who approved of the picture believed that the artist had been successful in imaginatively or romantically representing his subject, even if he had departed from the classical text. Most were convinced that Waterhouse had drawn his inspiration from a fifth-century-BC Greek stamnos at the British Museum (fig. 2), a work known throughout the world from an illustration in William Smith’s A Smaller Classical Mythology.3

The ship of Odysseus passing the Sirens, 480-470 BCE. / British Museum

One positive response was from M. H. Spielmann, writing for the Magazine of Art. Spielmann conceded that it was difficult to ‘give up our idea of womanly sirens’, but pointed out that Waterhouse did, after all, have ‘the support of the evidence of classic vases’ for his depiction of the mythic figures of the sirens as part women, part birds.4 Spielmann reminded his readers that it was the voices, not the appearance, of the sirens that had ‘enchanted the unhappy passers-by’.5Artistically speaking, he considered the picture ‘a very startling triumph a very carnival of colour, mosaiced and balanced with a skill more consummate than even the talented artist was credited with’.6

The response of the critic for the Athenaeum was also mostly favourable: ‘Students of ancient art will recognise with pleasure how cleverly the legend has been treated by the artist, some of the motives of designs on fictive vases being ably and sympathetically developed’.7 The reviewer concludes that Waterhouse has presented a picture ‘in harmony with classic canons’ and that Homer’s story has been ‘well told’.8 The only complaint is that the artist has incorrectly depicted the shields of Ulysses’ companions as being on the ship’s deck, instead of hung on the outside of the bulwarks, where they should more correctly have been located ‘according to a fashion in Roman designs as well as in mediaeval drawings and pictures’.9 In spite of his objection to this minor inaccuracy, the writer for the Athenaeum seems particularly impressed with the aesthetic aspects of the picture – the ‘shadowy strait’, the ‘dark blue and green water’, the ‘shadow of the land’ and the ‘sunlight of the outer sea’.10

The critic for the Saturday Review, while noting that Waterhouse had departed from Homer, painting seven sirens instead of two and painting them as women above the waist and as birds below, was similarly enthusiastic about the picture. He writes that Waterhouse has ‘happily wedded’ imagination to archaeology.11

None of these critics seems to have been greatly perturbed by Waterhouse’s deviation from the classical tradition or by his inaccuracies in the rendition of historical detail. Instead, all three writers appear to be impressed by the artist’s composition and by the aesthetic attributes of his picture.

Waterhouse was to face harsher criticism from the Times, which was quick to point out that he had not gone to Homer for his subject, but to later interpretations of the Ulysses and the Sirens episode – and in so doing had risked great danger. Relying on later versions of the Homeric legend could result in ‘grotesque’ and ‘even ridiculous’ depictions that would be incapable of communicating the irresistible charm of the original story.12 The reviewer disapproves strongly of Waterhouse’s portrayal of the siren as a kind of harpy – a bird of prey with a woman’s face – and further complains that the artist has failed to convey a sense of the enthralling song that enraptures Ulysses.13 Waterhouse’s rendition of the sirens as monstrous winged creatures, it is suggested, makes it difficult to accept that they were capable of a song of such bewitching beauty.14

Similarly, the Art Journal expressed disappointment that Waterhouse had not infused into the picture the drama of the classical narrative, because ‘the temptation, the involuntary effort of Odysseus to follow the ravishing sounds [of the sirens] is hardly suggested’.15 Despite the fact that any viewer schooled in the classics would have been immediately able to identify the scene depicted, the narrative – imperative in Victorian Academic art – was not clearly enough delineated for this reviewer. If narrative is perceived to be lacking, however, artistic ability and technical virtuosity are not. According to the Art JournalUlysses and the Sirens is a labour of love ‘wrought out with an abundance of exquisite detail’ in a ‘narrow rock-bound cleft of the sapphire-blue Mediterranean’.16

These various assessments raise numerous issues about the artist’s aim. It could be argued, for instance, that Waterhouse painted his picture specifically for an educated audience, able to appreciate his imaginative digression from the original Homeric source. Considered in this light, the careful allusions to the British Museum vase could be seen as an attempt to locate the picture immediately within the classical tradition, so that the artist, his bona fides established, might be free to place before the viewer his extraordinarily imaginative conception of his subject.

What is important to emphasize in looking at the various critical assessments of the Ulysses in Britain is that there appears to be a distinct division among the commentators: some felt the artist’s imaginative approach was permissible, chiefly because he departed only slightly from the Homeric tradition – and then only for the sake of pictorial aesthetics; other writers insisted on strict adherence to the classical source.

The Melbourne press, and members of the public whose views are recorded in the form of correspondence with the daily newspapers, would prove to be, on balance, less pleased with the picture and greatly concerned about the sum spent on it. Before the Ulysses reached Australian shores, in late 1891, there had been questioning of the expenditure that Sir Hubert Herkomer (1849–1914), the London adviser to the Gallery, had been allowed, and doubts had been expressed about leaving to one man the choice of purchases for the Gallery’s collection.17 Issues of a nationalistic cast also surfaced, with the Ulysses quickly becoming the focal point of a bitter controversy concerning the Trustees’ perceived preference for foreign over local art.

But there were also objections to Waterhouse’s treatment of his subject, with Melbourne’s critics being apparently more vehement than their London counterparts in voicing their disapproval. While local supporters of the Gallery Trustees reminded Melburnians that Ulysses and the Sirens was ‘the finest mythological picture of the year’,18 some critics passionately expressed their dissatisfaction with Waterhouse’s liberal adaptation of the Homeric legend.

The commentaries in the press gave rise to an open debate, offering the perfect opportunity for local scholars and members of the public to display their erudition and their knowledge of classical sources. ‘J. S.’, writing to the Argus, complained that Ulysses and the Sirens was a disappointing picture in that it did not tell Homer’s story. In a more chastising tone than any that had been witnessed in the British press, J. S. perceives a murderous disposition among the harpies, whose ‘claws are about to unclose’ and tear Ulysses’ flesh ‘to ribands’, and is of the view that Ulysses has been depicted as a criminal, bound to the mast of a ship.19 J. S. further complains that there is no hint in the picture of the ‘celestial music’ used by the 24 sirens to tempt their victims, and adds his voice to those of the British commentators in bemoaning the fact that the sirens have been depicted as half female, half bird.20 In another letter to the editor of the Argus, the prominent Melbourne citizen Molesworth R. Green similarly considered that Waterhouse’s Ulysses resembled a criminal, tied to a mast and ‘exposed to the attacks of furious birds of prey’.21 Like the critic for the Times in London, Green argues that ‘the vulture claws [of the sirens] preclude the possibility of such birds uttering dulcet strains of music’.22

Hubert von Herkomer, self-portrait (c.1880) / Wikimedia Commons

Sir Hubert Herkomer strongly defended his selection of Ulysses and the Sirens for the Melbourne collection. He believed that the work was a worthy, if not entirely accurate, example of erudition, particularly as Waterhouse had been influenced by a classical Greek rendition of the Homeric legend:

Here we have what might be more definitely called imaginative art, i.e., art of conjuring up the probable appearance of an ancient scene, and the subject is treated with a curious regard for Japanese art, and equally so for the art of the Greek vases. It was from one of the latter that he got the idea of the picture, and this is his authority for making sirens such as we have always imagined harpies to be represented. The colour, full and rich, is in no way impossible, but is distinctly agreeable. The painting is direct and simple, everything painted more or less at once (just the reverse method to that employed by [Frank] Dicksee [in The Crisis, 1891, another picture acquired for the Gallery by Herkomer]). But this does not mean that he gets what he desires at once; he may paint a part twenty times, but each time it will be complete. This is the French influence upon us.23

For Herkomer, then, Waterhouse was quite in harmony with the classical canon.

Working within the realms of what Herkomer describes as ‘imaginative art’ would of course have allowed a painter considerable artistic licence to make social commentaries disguised in a cloak of myth, in settings far removed from British society. Perhaps Ulysses and the Sirens, with all its classical pretensions, was really a veiled response to the changing status of women in late Victorian Britain.

From femmes fatales to bird-women: Ulysses and the Sirens in the context of late Victorian paining

Victorian society demanded that women be vessels of purity: religious, chaste, self-sacrificing and charitable. In ‘Sesame and Lilies’, Ruskin insisted that purity be guarded and preserved in a young woman:

She is to be taught to strive that her thoughts of piety may not be feeble in proportion to the number they embrace, nor her prayer more languid than it is for the momentary relief from pain of her husband or her child.24

Ruskin advocates that, in the safe haven of the home, women should be sheltered ‘not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt and division’ – in their domestic confines, wonien should be protected from danger and temptation.25

In the nineteenth century, etiquette guides for women were published by the hundreds, educating their readers on how best to serve their husbands and to maintain their own proper place within society.26 However, in the mid to late years of the century, women began to take steps towards establishing a more equitable place for themselves within society. The Women’s Property Act 1883 gave married women the right to retain their personal earnings.27 The women’s suffrage movement was also a cause of concern for men.28

The threat women posed to their long reign of dominance in society was perhaps the impetus behind the fact that male painters began increasingly to portray the kind of woman that the twentieth century has come to describe as the femme fatale. Writing of representations of women within the genre today identified as femme fatale painting, Hansen claims:

The woman appears as a seductive fairy without a heart, as a mysteriously fascinating creature whose repressed lustfulness seeks satisfaction as an undine, nymph, vampire, or herald of death who ensnares the man with a strangely captivating magic and brings about his destruction.29

The woman Hansen describes is a far cry from the ideal Victorian woman, who would never show outward signs of her sexuality. Victorian depictions of the femme fatale were thus depictions of ‘deviant’ women, who used their feminine beauty and sexuality to snare their male victims. With her fair looks and her charms, the femme fatale lured man to his destruction. As Bram Dijkstra, a key commentator on femme fatale painting, observes: ‘[Woman] had come to be seen as the monstrous goddess of degeneration, a creature of evil who lorded it over all the horrifically homed beasts which populated man’s sexual nightmares’ 30

While more than a brief mention of the femme fatale tradition in British painting is beyond the scope of this article, it is important to point out that the femme fatale was a recurrent motif in the late Victorian pictorial repertoire – if not always in the frightening incarnation identified by Dijkstra.31

Portrayals of bewitching enchantresses in the work of late Victorian painters could not, however, have prepared audiences for the dark vision of J. W. Waterhouse’s bird-women. Contemporary commentators, in both London and Melbourne, were virtually unanimous in considering Waterhouse’s sirens to be either birds of prey32 or monsters. 33 The critics lashed out at the hideous spectacle with which the artist had presented the Victorian art world: female heads on vulture-like bodies.34 Strapped to the mast, Ulysses would be utterly defenceless if the sirens were to pierce his skin with their fearsome claws.

It may well be that the critics expected and desired to see voluptuous full-bodied women, using their feminine charms to tempt the ancient Greek voyagers. The tradition of the erotic femme fatale was by 1891 well established in art, especially in paintings of mermaids and sirens: the temptresses of the sea. The femme fatale depicted as sensuous and alluring may have fulfilled a male fantasy of helplessness in the face of seduction and feminine bodily enticement. However, there is nothing erotic or seductive in the squat, feathered bodies of Waterhouse’s sirens. It is even possible to read a symbolist intent in this extraordinary interpretation of the Ulysses legend. The fundamental symbolist agenda of giving visual (material) form to human feelings, fears and anxieties, seems to find a frightening articulation in the wing-flapping forms of Ulysses’ tormentors: the stuff of symbolist nightmares.35

Whatever Waterhouse’s intention, his hybrid bird-women, despite their classical antecedents, clearly displeased the critics. A commentator in the Pictorial no doubt speaks for many of the picture’s detractors:

‘Sirens’, said I to myself, ‘I had no notion of them except as lovely creatures of the Loreley kind, strictly confined to their own rock, to whose fatal contact they lured the voyager by their singing’.36

The writer further states, referring to the artist’s use of an antique vase as the source for his harpy-like sirens:

I maintain, however, that the idea of the sirens, indeed of any insidious form of fascination, is not conveyed by Mr Waterhouse, however ‘learned’ (to use a favourable term of art jargon) his adaptation in its antique form of the Homeric story of the prudent precaution of that eminently ‘canny’ personage, Ulysses may be.37

It appears that Waterhouse had taken his bestial and monstrous vision of femmes fatales too far.

Sirens and sorceresses: Waterhouse’s interlude with mythical Greek femmes fatales

At the time Ulysses and the Sirens was executed, Waterhouse had made a decided shift in subject matter, towards Greek legend. In his youthful pictures, clearly influenced by the Dutch painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912), Waterhouse had shown a predilection for scenes of everyday domestic life in ancient Rome. In the words of the artist’s early biographer, Alfred Baldry, Waterhouse subsequently entered a period of ‘picturesque mysticism’38 and it was only in Ulysses and the Sirens that the style for which he is now recognised first began to appear.

The theme of dangerous women was constant throughout Waterhouse’s career, but never again would the sinister harpies of Ulysses and the Sirens surface in his art.

His other femmes fatales were beautiful, sometimes pensive, and entirely human young women. To gain any sense of sexual danger from Waterhouse’s representations, viewers were expected to rely on their own knowledge of the stories associated with the figures depicted. Many Victorian art connoisseurs, as well as members of the public, would have been schooled in classical mythology and would thus have been familiar with the antique legends. Viewers who were not could undoubtedly consult one of the many classical dictionaries published in the late nineteenth century – volumes such as William Smith’s A Smaller Classical Mythology.

In the early 1890s, Waterhouse’s preoccupation with Ulysses and with his love interest, Circe, is unequivocal. In 1891, the year Ulysses and the Sirens was shown at the Royal Academy, the artist also painted Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses (Oldham Art Gallery), exhibiting the picture at the New Gallery in London,39 In Circe Offering the Cup, the sorceress Circe, daughter of Helios (the sun) and Perseis (the daughter of Okeanos), dwelling on the island of Aeaea, is seen offering Ulysses a cup of magic brew intended to transform him into a swine. Circe is framed by a gigantic mirror that reflects an image of Ulysses as a wary hero, approaching her with much trepidation. It is interesting to note that the figure of Ulysses resembles the artist himself.40 Do we here have evidence that Waterhouse was afraid of skilled and learned women who threatened men’s masculinity with their feminine capabilities and mysterious powers?41 Circe, known for her mastery of the craft of magic and for her ability to change men into hapless wild beasts, could easily be interpreted as a mythic metaphor for the defiant modern woman intent on making her mark in society.

Image of Circe, a figure from Greek mythology, who appears in Homer’s Odyssey. / Art Gallery of South Australia, Wikimedia Commons

According to Casteras, the late-nineteenth-century woman who displayed genius or extraordinary creative achievement was seen by her Victorian brothers as a decided ‘outsider and anomaly’, and typically found her visual equivalent in the witch or sorceress.42 Representations of ‘female anomaly and inversion’ served simultaneously as ‘spectacles for erotic consumption by men (both artists and spectators)’ and as ‘manifestations of masculine fears, desires and fantasies’.43 Both aspects are certainly evident in Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses. In her loose crepe gown and with her long, flowing hair, Circe presents a figure of potent sexuality, Her outstretched arms, confident gaze and sensuous open mouth invite the viewer to an erotic interlude. But in her hand she holds the instrument of a man’s destruction.

It is easy to see the appeal of a sorceress such as Circe for the Victorian male captivated by the femme fatale. As Christian observes:

[The] combined themes of beauty, evil and magic, together with the wealth of descriptive detail, proved irresistible to a collective imagination centred on the cult of the ‘stunner’ and profoundly influenced by notions of the supernatural.44

Whatever our interpretation of this picture, Waterhouse’s Circe has little in common with the figures of the sirens who encircle, assail and barricade Ulysses and his crew in the Melbourne painting.

In 1892 Waterhouse painted another Circe picture, Circe Invidiosa (Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide), which portrays the sorceress in the act of poisoning the sea; her intention is to transform Scylla, her rival for the affections of Glaucus, into a repulsive monster (fig. 3).45 Here Circe is a semi-clad beauty, concentrating on her potent brew. Waterhouse has avoided representing the monstrous transformed state of Scylla, instead presenting audiences only with a beautiful femme fatale.

Interestingly, Ruskin did not regard Circe as particularly threatening to men. He believed her to be dangerous only if ungoverned and unwatched by men. Otherwise, she was seen by the great Victorian sage as a provider of nourishment: cheese, wine and flour. If a man managed to get poisoned and transformed into a swine’, it was his own fault. By contrast, the ‘deadly’ sirens, Ruskin believed, were ‘in all things opposed to Circean power. They promise pleasure, but never give it. They nourish in no wise; but slay by slow death’.46 There was no recovery from their power.

Despite Ruskin’s views, when one looks deeply into the myths associated with Circe she emerges as a decidedly dangerous woman, capable of causing serious harm to men and women alike; fully skilled in magic and the black arts, she is the murderer of her own husband. Her potions were as fatal as the sirens’ magical, alluring voices. Yet Waterhouse’s conception of Circe is less harrowing and frightening than his depiction of the bird-women in Ulysses and the Sirens.47

The Circe Invidiosa, and other paintings that followed the Ulysses, reveal that Waterhouse almost instantly abandoned the motif of the harpy, preferring to present his public with tamer and more acceptable renditions of the femme fatale. Indeed, in a later painting of a woman he described as a siren, he depicted the figure as a beautiful woman, the only indication of the supernatural being the discreetly suggested scales, like those of a mermaid, on her lower legs.48 The artist’s approach in this picture (The Siren, c.1900 (at Sotheby’s, London, in 1989)) is consistent with the way in which his contemporaries were engaging with the same theme. It is also entirely possible, however, that this ‘safer’ approach was a result of the criticism that Waterhouse had received for his portrayal of the sirens in the Ulysses.

Waterhouse’s images of Circe, sirens and sorceresses raise a number of questions.49 Was this artist, who depicted temptresses throughout his career, merely following in an established pictorial tradition or was he extending it? Whatever Waterhouse’s intentions, it is clear that Ulysses and the Sirens – with its sinister femmes fatales fluttering menacingly around the figure of Ulysses – encapsulates many of the fears and insecurities of the late Victorian male. What is also clear is that, in painting this intriguing but disturbing picture, Waterhouse may well have stepped across the boundaries of what was deemed acceptable in art, unsettling art enthusiasts throughout the Empire. With its sinister vision of beautiful women as hovering birds of prey, Ulysses and the Sirens, a work whispering with symbolist resonance, sits just at the fringes of voyeuristic art, a painting unique in its time and in our own.50


  1. A. Hobson, The Art and Life of J W Waterhouse RA, 1849–1917, London, 1980, no. 90.
  2. For Herkomer’s appointment as the London adviser to the Gallery Trustees, see I. Zdanowicz, ‘Prints of Fortune: Hubert Herkomer’s 1891–92 Etching Purchases for the National Gallery of Victoria’, Art Bulletin of Victoria, no. 33, 1993, pp. 2–4.
  3. W. Smith (ed.), A Smaller Classical Mythology … with Translations from the Ancient Poets and Questions upon the Work, rev. edn, London, 1867, p. 444.
  4. M. H. Spielmann, ‘Current Art: The Royal Academy’, Magazine of Art, 1891, p. 220.
  5. ibid.
  6. ibid.
  7. ‘Fine Arts: The Royal Academy (First Notice)’, Athenaeum, no. 3314, 2 May 1891, p. 577.
  8. ibid.
  9. ibid.
  10. ibid.
  11. ‘The Picture Galleries’, Saturday Review, vol. LXXI, no. 1853, 2 May 1891, p. 532.
  12. ‘The Royal Academy: Third Notice’, Times, 21 May 1891, p. 4.
  13. ibid. The Academy, too, complains that Waterhouse’s sirens are not ‘[s]irens proper according to the Homeric version, luring the unwary to their rock by the magic of their irresistible song’, but rather harpies, ‘strong in attack and prepared to take the offensive’, with ‘the wings and claws of strong birds of prey’ (‘Fine Art: The Royal Academy I’, Academy, vol. XXXIX, no. 992, 9 May 1891, p. 447). The Art Journal similarly complains: ‘These strange birds with human heads are rather Harpies than Sirens, and we feel too much that if the piercing-sweetness of their song should not prevail, they may too easily rend with those cruel eagleclaws of theirs the coveted victims’ (‘The Summer Exhibitions at Home and Abroad II: The Academy and the New Gallery’, Art Journal, June 1891, p. 188).
  14. ‘The Royal Academy: Third Notice’.
  15. ‘The Summer Exhibitions’, pp. 187–8.
  16. ibid., p. 187.
  17. See C. Murray Puckle, ‘The New Picture at the National Gallery [letter to the editor]’, Argus, 4 August 1891, p. 7; S. Dickinson, ‘Pictures for the National Gallery [letter to the editor]’, Argus, 26 September 1891, p. 6.
  18. ‘Pictures for the National Gallery of Victoria’, Contributor, 1891, Newspaper Clipping Books, LTM 92, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne.
  19. J. S., ‘The New Pictures in the Gallery [letter to the editor]’, Argus, 28 October 1891, p. 6.
  20. ibid.
  21. M. R. Green, ‘Ulysses and the Sirens [letter to the editor]’, Argus, 31 October 1891, p. 5.
  22. ibid.
  23. H. Herkomer, in ‘Selection of Pictures for the National Gallery: Important Statement by Professor Herkomer’, Argus, 23 July 1892, p. 5.
  24. J. Ruskin, ‘Sesame and Lilies: Lecture II – Lilies’ (1865), in The Works of John Ruskin, vol. XVIII, eds E. T. Cook & A. Wedderburn, London, 1905, p. 127.
  25. ibid., p. 122.
  26. See, for example, J. Butcher, Instructions in Etiquette, for the Use of All; Five Letters on Important Subjects, Exclusively for Ladies; and Conversational Hints to Whom Concerned, 3rd edn, London, 1847; T. S. Arthur, Advice to Young Ladies on Their Duties and Conduct in Life, London, 1856; Etiquette for Ladies, Being a Manual of Minor Social Ethics and Customary Observances, London, 1857.
  27. See A. C. Faxon, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Oxford, 1989, p. 200.
  28. See V. M. Allen, ‘”One Strangling Golden Hair”: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Lady Lilith‘ , Art Bulletin, vol. LXVI, no. 2, June 1984, pp. 285–94.
  29. H. J. Hansen (ed.), Late Nineteenth Century Art: The Art, Architecture and Applied Arts of the ‘Pompous Age’, trans. M. Bullock, New York, 1973, p. 124. For commentaries on femme fatale painting, see B. Dijkstra, Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture, New York, 1986; J. A. Kestner, Mythology and Misogyny: The Social Discourse of Nineteenth Century British Classical- Subject Painting, Madison, Wisconsin, 1989; E. Prettejohn, ‘Fatal Attraction’, Tate: The Art Magazine, no. 13, Winter 1997, p. 34.
  30. Dijkstra, p. 325.
  31. Among the many artists to address this theme were Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Edward Bume-Jones, Philip Burne- Jones, John Collier, Herbert Draper and Frederick Sandys. By the mid nineteenth century, temptresses of this kind were also appearing in the works of great poets such as Tennyson and Swinburne. Swinburne made frequent reference to the motif of the alluring female who induces men into a trance, numbing their ‘analytical faculties of the intellect’ to excite erotic sensations (R. Sieburth, ‘Poetry and Obscenity: Baudelaire and Swinburne’, Comparative Literature, vol. 36, no. 4, Fall 1984, p. 351). An example is Dolores, the ‘poisonous queen’ with a ‘cruel / Red mouth like a venomous flower’ (C. Swinburne, ‘Dolores’ (1866), in The Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne: Poems, Philadelphia, 1910, pp. 67, 66).
  32. The Graphic described them as ‘birds of prey with huge claws’ (‘The Royal Academy’, Graphic, vol. XLIII, no. 1120, 16 May 1891, p. 547). The Art Journal similarly described them as ‘beautiful women’, but with ‘bodies of strong birds of prey’ and ‘cruel eagle-claws’ (‘The Summer Exhibitions’, pp. 187–8). See also note 13 above.
  33. In Melbourne, Molesworth R. Green referred to Waterhouse’s sirens as ‘monstrous fowl’ (Green, p. 4), and a correspondent writing to the Argus considered them ‘winged monsters’ (‘Ulysses and the Sirens’ [letter to the editor], Argus, 5 November 1891, p. 7).
  34. Like many artists painting femme fatale pictures in the late nineteenth century, Waterhouse portrayed his female figures with the faces of sweet English maids. Jenkyns claims that Waterhouse derived this concept of the sweet, shy temptress from Edward Burne-Jones (R. Jenkyns, Dignity and Decadence: Victorian Art and the Classical Inheritance, London, 1991, p. 284). A number of reviewers speculated that the faces of Waterhouse’s sirens had been modelled on the face of one fair English model. The critic for the Graphic, for example, expressed this view and described the faces as being ‘of a thoroughly English type’ (‘The Royal Academy’). The reviewer for the Art Journal complained that the artist had ‘too uniformly given the beautiful type of English womanhood’ to the sirens (‘The Summer Exhibitions’, p. 187).
  35. Woman as both angel and demon is an important theme in the poetry of Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867), a key influence for the French symbolists. In ‘Hymne à la Beauté’, for example, Baudelaire speaks of Beauty/Woman as a monster (‘monstre’) and, seeking to determine whether she is inherently good or evil, poses a question that aligns the figure of the siren quite explicitly with the forces of darkness: ‘De Satan ou de Dieu, qu’importe? Ange ou Sirène / Qu’importe’ (Whether from Satan or from God, what does it matter? Angel or Siren / What does it matter’) (C. Baudelaire, ‘Hymne à la Beauté’ (1860), in Les Fleurs du mal, Paris, 1961, p. 28). I would like to thank Dana Rowan for this material.
  36. The Pictorial: Academy and Salon Pictures of 1891, c.1891, Newspaper Clipping Books, LTM 92, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne.
  37. ibid.
  38. A. L. Baldry, ‘J. W. Waterhouse and His Work’, Studio, vol. V, 1894, p. 111.
  39. Hobson, Art and Life, no. 91, fig. 50.
  40. See A. Hobson, J W Waterhouse, London, 1989, p. 49. For a photograph by Ralph W. Robinson of the artist (c.1891), see J. Maas, The Victorian Art World in Photographs, London, 1984, p. 132.
  41. See B. Taylor, ‘Female Savants and the Erotics of Knowledge in Pre-Raphaelite Art’, in Collecting the Pre-Raphaelites: The Anglo-American Enchantment, ed. M. F. Watson, Brookfield, Vermont, 1997, pp. 121–31.
  42. S. P. Casteras, ‘Malleus Maleficarum or the Witches’ Hammer: Victorian Visions of Female Sages and Sorceresses’, in Victorian Sages and Cultural Discourse: Renegotiating Gender and Power, ed. T. E. Morgan, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1990, p. 142.
  43. ibid., p. 143.
  44. J. Christian, The Pre-Raphaelites (exh. cat.), ed. L. Pan-is, Tate Gallery, London, 1984, p. 290.
  45. Hobson, Art and Life, no. 94.
  46. J. Ruskin, ‘Munera Pulveris’ (1862–63), in The Works of John Ruskin, vol. XVII, pp. 213–14.
  47. For Waterhouse’s other paintings of Circe, see Hobson, Art and Life, nos 92, 93, 183.
  48. ibid., no. 134, fig. 108; Hobson, J W Waterhouse, fig. 56.
  49. Paintings by Waterhouse on the sorceress theme include The Magic Circle, 1886 (Tate Gallery, London) (Hobson, Art and Life, no. 64, fig. 35); Jason and Medea, 1907 (private collection) (Hobson, Art and Life, no. 158, fig. 121); and The Sorceress, c.1911 (at Peter Nahum, London, in 1989), an inscription on the back of which identifies the figure as Circe (Hobson, Art and Life, no. 182, fig. 132; J W Waterhouse, fig. 78).
  50. For further discussion of Ulysses and the Sirens, see A. Inglis & J. Long, Queens & Sirens: Archaeology in 19th Century Art and Design (exh. cat.), Geelong Art Gallery, Geelong, Victoria, 1998, cat. no. 9.

Originally published by the Art Bulletin of Victoria 40 (06.04.2014), republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.



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