Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses is an oil painting in the Pre-Raphaelite style by John William WaterhouseEnglish artist known primarily for his depictions of women set in scenes from myth, legend or poetry. He is the best known of that group of artists who from the 1880s revived the literary themes favoured by the Pre-Raphaelites. , created in 1891. Waterhouse is the best known of that group of artists who from the 1880s revived the literary themes favoured by the Pre-Raphaelites, although not themselves necessarily employing their techniques. Most of the paintings produced by Waterhouse at that stage of his career, including Circe, depict ancient classical or historical subjects.
Circe is a sorceress encountered in Homer’s Odyssey, who seeks to bring Odysseus – known as Ulysses to the Romans – under her spell by having him drink the potion she is offering, as she has already done with the crew of his ship. One of Odysseus’s men, whom she has transformed into a pig, can be seen lying at her feet. Odysseus himself, looking understandably anxious, is reflected in the mirror behind the sorceress. The “dark, dangerous woman” of the painting was a particularly popular theme in late 19th-century art and literature.
Waterhouse’s representation of Circe is almost certainly influenced by that of the French painter Louis Chalon, which had been exhibited three years earlier. Chalon focused on Circe’s descent from Helios, the Greek god and personification of the sun, showing her against the background of a light-filled disk. Waterhouse changed that sun to a mirror, but the two paintings otherwise share a similar composition and iconography. Chalon’s depiction shows the sorceress naked, but Waterhouse clothed her in a transparent fabric, with a “gorgeous freshness … that makes her look far more seductive than Chalon’s figure”.
Waterhouse revisited the theme of Circe in 1892, in his Circe InvidiosaPainting by John William Waterhouse completed in 1892, his second depiction of the Greek mythological character Circe. . In both paintings, in the words of art critic Judith Yarnall, he is inviting the viewer to ask the question “is she goddess or woman?”
Yarnall, Judith. Transformations of Circe: The History of an Enchantress. University of Illinois Press, 1994.
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