Christopher Wood writes in Olympian Dreamers that among “the painters of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, it was Waterhouse who made the greatest contribution to the classical movement. In his work the classicism of Leighton and the aestheticism of Burne-Jones are fused, to produce a highly individual and romantic style” (224). Indeed, despite his dedication to classical myth, his figures seem real rather than inhabitants of a dream-like universe as we see in Burne-Jones’ work.

Circe, the mythical sorceress of the island of Aeaea, transforms her victims to animals using a magic herbal drink. In the painting of “Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses,” Waterhouse depicts the witch in the action of trickery and seduction itself, holding the cup out to her victim. Waterhouse indicates that Circe is in control by positioning her above the eye of the observer; her seat is raised up on a step and she tilts her chin upward so that we must look up into her eyes as she looks down. In this way, Waterhouse manipulates her posture to place her in a position of superiority. In addition, Circe’s background indicates power in that the shapes which frame her (the mirror and the arms of her chair) create the effect of a throne. In this way, Waterhouse portrays Circe as a dangerous and beautiful woman.

Her dark eyes, hair and lips produce a powerful and frightening demeanor, yet the milky whiteness of her chest and the delicately translucent fabric of her robes indicate her alluring qualities. Indeed, the painting is the ultimate display of her mixed attributes as she holds the cup straight out in front of her in a fearful and yet tempting gesture. Ulysses, on the other hand, is subordinated in the painting he is merely reflected in the periphery of the mirror, and he bends slightly before Circe as if he is in the midst of bowing or beginning a humble approach to take the ominous cup from her outstretched hand. In some ways this emerges as a strangely inverted version of the lady of Shallot she waits for the man, yet she is the one in power.

Waterhouse transforms this character in another painting, simply named Circe in which he presents a more informal and less frightening image of the witch. Waterhouse’s technique is also sketchier, contributing to the informality of the painting. Instead of sitting on a throne, Circe occupies a much more domestic position at a table, surrounded by urns. She is informally leaning forward with a book open by her side, as if she is working on her spells in privacy. Her jaw is still strong, yet her lighter hair, soft pink robes and downward gaze onto the table produce a less intimidating effect. In this pose, chin in hand, Circe appears to be quietly contemplating something in the manner of many Pre-Raphaelite ladies. Waterhouse’s ability to depict, alter and refine characters from myth and poetry, captivates the interest of the viewer. As Treuherz observes, “The paradox of the Aesthetic Movement lay in the fact that though the cult of beauty was of central importance, the need was felt for art to have a deeper meaning” (142). I think that Waterhouse truly achieved this by going back to individual characterization of his figures, and the narrative painting of which the Pre-Raphaelites were so fond.


Victorian Web Homepage Visual Arts J. W. Waterhouse paintings by J. W. Waterhouse

Last modified 25 December 2006