Waterhouses's Circe Circe Invideosa

Left: Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses; right: Circe Invidiosa, both by John William Waterhouse

The sorceress, a subject found in works of the late Pre-Raphaelite school, epitomized the potentially malevolent female powers of the femme fatale. John William Waterhouse, Fredrick Sandys, and others, particularly Sir Edward Burne-Jones, used the subject of the woman with supernatural powers -- powers beyond nature and the natural -- to embody late Victorian attitudes towards one specific aspect of the natural: female sexuality and its power over men. Like the poet Robert Browning (who takes a very different attitude toward women), these painters choose subjects from the worlds of ancient Greece and the European middle ages. By doing so, they imply that this Victorian fascination or obsession had a universal validity since it found embodiment in all ages. Thus, Waterhouse's Circe traces woman's natiural but unnatural control over men back to ancient, pre-classical Greek legend, and Sandy's Morgan-le-Fay instead depicts her medieval form, as do various portrayals of La Belle Dame sans Merci.

Beguiling of Merlin

The sorcercess embraces her witch side, using her magics to the peril of her male victims. The art of the late Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones is peppered with magical women from mermaids drowning hu man males to blind witches confounded by Perseus. ForBurne-Jones, the sorceress need not be a fantasy, but was disturbingly real, as can be seen in his paintings The Wine of Circe and The Beguiling of Merlin, which shows a different palette than Burne-Jones usually employs -- instead of smoky neutrals, he uses vivid yellows, scarlets, and golds. The forms and lines have more weight and definition than his normal style. The huge figure of Circe dominates the image, her bent body spanning nearly the entire horizontal, as she leans forward to drip poison into a flask of wine. She holds her loose garment with one hand to keep it from falling off her body. Two panthers attend her, echoing her catlike ferocity. The model, Mary Zambaco, was in real life a woman who had come to dominate his life and supplant his less-strongly featured wife, Georgiana. The ensuing tumultuous feelings and consequences of having an affair with his model must have contributed to Burne-Jones' portrayal of Mary as an enchanted seductress.

In The Beguiling of Merlin, a huge painting of approximately six feet high and four feet wide, Mary again commands the scene. She stands in the foreground, twisting her upper body around to cast her spell upon Merlin, entrapping him in a hawthorn tree. Burne-Jones depicts the prostrate Merlin as helpless with the blossoms surrounding him, and he looks back at his betrayer with sunken eyes. The painting represents a personal account of the beguiling of an artist by his model. For Burne-Jones, at least, the depiction of the femme fatale as a bewitching woman echoed in the real life of the artist.

Other Representations of Circe

Last modified 5 June 2006