It depicts a tall, elegant woman with her head tilted forward as she tips a bowl of liquid into the water below. At her feet there is a shadowy shape, and the background of twisted foliage lends weight to the dark theme.
In the original Greek myth, Circe is a goddess (or sometimes a nymph or sorceress) who had an extensive understanding of the herbs and magic necessary for potions.
For this reason, she is also sometimes considered the daughter of Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft. In Waterhouse's painting we see Circe tipping a poison into the water so that she can transform her rival Scylla into a monster -- shown by the fish-like shape beneath her feet.
The menacing tale is one familiar in Greek mythology, full of romance and intrigue followed by jealousy and evil. Circe, like many of the Greek deities, was not known for being forgiving or kind; she would often turn her enemies into animals, even if all they did was offend her. In certain stories she was shown to be exiled from her land to an island by herself, and seeing the glowering figure in this painting, that knowledge almost comes with a kind of relief.
That emotion is one of the reasons Waterhouse had such success in painting historical and mythological scenes. Where some artists might create a dry image when faced with a story thousands of years old, Waterhouse could dig his fingers into the deepest emotional aspects of the story, bringing to the surface the darkest (or sometimes brightest) parts of human nature.
By doing this, he created art that transcends time. It is easy to identify with Circe just by remembering a moment of our own jealousy, and seeing the determination and anger on Circe's pale face.
Part of a Series of Paintings
John William Waterhouse painted 'Circe Invidiosa' in 1892. It was one of three paintings featuring Circe, with the first being 'Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses' in 1891 and the third and final one being 'The Sorceress' (1911). By painting the figure in a variety of settings, Waterhouse explored not just the mystical side of Circe but also the more human side, bringing increasing layers to an already fascinating character.
As one of the artists of the pre-Raphaelite movement, Waterhouse had a strong interest in the female form as shown in his many paintings depicting mythological and fantasy women. In 'Circe Invidiosa' he has used his experience with this subject matter to create a figure that stands tall and natural while still being attractive to view. However, this is an interesting contrast to the menace the painting also brings with the use of dark, rich blues and golds.
Circe's menace is not hidden by her beauty and perhaps is increased by it. John William Waterhouse succeeded here in presenting a simple image with many layers of meaning and an unflinching take on beauty and evil.
Waterhouse cared deeply about this painting and so planned it precisely on paper, prior to working on the large canvas. He paid great attention to the facial expression of Circe, as shown in the study drawing at the bottom of the page. He is also likely to have carefully designed the pattern on her dress as well as the angles of her arms in study drawings.
The study sketch included here was probably made from charcoal, and notice how dark the model's hair is, in comparison to the rest of the work. This continued into the painting itself, with her dark brown hair almost merging into the tones of the forest behind. The blue water in which she stands then blends delightfully with the matching tones of her dress.
John William Waterhouse himself was a classically trained artist who would have been introduced to drawing long before he lifted a brush for the first time. Academic teaching placed a great significance on being able to draw first, as this laid the foundation to all an artist's work in other disciplines, be it painting, sculpture or even architecture.
Large Image of Circe Invidiosa
We have added a larger image of Circe Invidiosa below, allowing you to spot some of the precise details added by Waterhouse all those years ago. This tall, narrow canvas was unusual for the artist, but works perfectly with the composition that he adds here. It is perhaps the detail on the dress which is the most memorable element of this piece.