Ulysses and the Sirens by John William Waterhouse. Oil on canvas.

This painting, which Christopher Wood describes as "masterpiece" and "the most outstanding of all Victorian pictures based on Homer," has a "weird, menacing and nightmarish" (230) dramatic instensity almost unique in the painter's work. Like the Tate Lady of Shalott, it combines romance and realism in Waterhouse's characteristic way. Wood explains the subject of Ulysses and the Sirens as follows:

It depicts the moment when Ulysses and his companions are threatened on their voyage home by the sirens, female monsters who lure men to destruction by their song. To counter them, Ulysses stopped up the ears of his men with wax, and had himself tied to the mast. All around flap the sirens, huge birds with the faces of beautiful women. Waterhouse took this idea of sirens from a Greek vase in the British Museum, but the figures of the birds also recall the Egyptian symbol of the winged scarab. The boat, the frightened figures of the sailors, and the bleakly rocky setting are all painted with strong realism, and the intrusion of the sirens gives the picture a sinister and terrifying effect. [230]


Hobson, Anthony. The Art and Life of J. W. Waterhouse, RA, 1849-1917. London: Studo Vista/Christie's, 1980.

Wood, Christopher. Olympian Dreamers: Victorian Classical Painters. London: Constable, 1983.