Ulysses and the Sirens 1891

WATERHOUSE_-_Ulises_y_las_Sirenas_(National_Gallery_of_Victoria,_Melbourne,_1891Date: 1891
Medium: Oil on canvas
Size: 100 x 201.7 cm
Location: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

The art of Sirens has long been associated with the Greek pantheon. Sirens, or ‘Sorceresses', are women who sing in the sea to tempt sailors into making a foolish decision. Those who ignore them are doomed to destruction by the oracle. Ultimately, Ulysses heeded Circe's warning and stayed on the ship. He eventually passed the coast, but was consumed by the ensuing storm.


In the midst of his obsession with the legendary Greek hero and his consort, the sorceress Circe, Waterhouse created two paintings of the titular character. One depicts Circe offering Ulysses a cup. The other features the sorceress enthroned between two bronze lions. Both paintings are remarkable pieces of art.

Although the Sirens in Homer's story were only two, Waterhouse used the legend to create an interesting composition. The Sirens are depicted as birds, and men gaze in awe at them. The hero, Ulysses, leans toward the Sirens in the painting. The ship he's sailing is also incredibly ornate. Waterhouse depicts each Siren as having a beautiful woman's head and a bird's body. In this way, the paintings are noticeably more romantic than other Waterhouse works.


Sorceresses are often associated with the sea, but they also have a more human side. Waterhouse's rendition of them is surprisingly faithful to the original Homeric account, with each Siren having the head of a beautiful young woman. Waterhouse added bandages around the heads of the sailor victims, a visual cue to the text that is not entirely literal.

Although Waterhouse remained faithful to the myth, he turned to Greek mythology for inspiration. Although influenced by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, he also painted scenes of everyday life in ancient Rome. Throughout his career, his obsession with dangerous women would remain constant. This article explores some of his most famous female paintings. Sorceresses in Ulysses and the Sirens 1891 by John William Waterhouse

Hypnotic beauty

Hypnotic beauty was a major fascination for artist John William Waterhouse. His early works were delicate keepsakes, and his later females were engrossed in elaborate settings, influenced by Romanticism and Greek mythology. Waterhouse's works were highly acclaimed. While still a young artist, his paintings remain important examples of romantic art.

The painting was a masterpiece when it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1891. It was Waterhouse's second exhibit at the prestigious place. Critics hailed its beauty, but were not perturbed by its departure from the classical tradition. Instead, they were impressed by the artist's aesthetic qualities and composition.

Semi-clad beauty

The semi-clad beauty in Waterhouse's Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses (1891) has little in common with the sorceress depicted in Waterhouse's painting. This 1891 painting depicts the sorceress on the island of Aeaea, surrounded by a gigantic mirror reflecting the image of Ulysses.

The painting was created by John William Waterhouse, who was already reviewing Homer's Odyssey. Waterhouse's depiction of the Sirens was highly controversial, with critics and writers alike citing artistic licence in critiquing his picture. Ultimately, the critics were impressed by the composition and aesthetic attributes of the work. This is not to say that Waterhouse's picture was an immediate success.

Homeric tradition

This painting is a striking example of how the Homeric tradition can be adapted into modern art. Inspired by the myths of Greek and Roman literature, Waterhouse has depicted the Sirens, the mythological creatures who lure sailors with their seductive song. In this 1891 painting, Ulysses and the Sirens, the artist depicts the Sirens as a pair of birds of prey, and the Greek hero Ulysses is tied to the mast and his crew, trying to control the ship. Other notable elements of the painting include mermaids and nymphs.

The story begins in a forest with Circe offering Odysseus a cup of nectar. She poses with a pig at her feet and holds a magic wand. Waterhouse includes a large circular mirror in the background, where Odysseus is reflected. Waterhouse then scatters berries and flowers around the scene to evoke the scene of a dream.

Waterhouse's treatment of the Sirens

John William Waterhouse's treatment of ULYSses and the Sirens raises a variety of questions. For instance, the story of the sea creatures and the sorceress Circe has much in common with that of the ancient Greek epic, The Odyssey, but not necessarily the same meaning. Both depict the same figure, namely a sea-bound sorceress who has poisoned the sea. Waterhouse portrays the sorceress as a beautiful semi-clad beauty who has avoided the monstrous Scylla.

The first depiction of the siren is a sketch by Waterhouse that was inspired by a scene in The Poetic Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. The sketch includes three mermaids and a floating head of the musician Orpheus. The siren and the mariner share a similar relationship. Waterhouse hoped to convey that same feeling in his painting.