This fine example of the charming art movement that was the British Pre-Raphaelite scene can now be found at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia and is one of very few original artworks from this movement to be found in the country.
This particular story comes from Book XII of Homer's Odyssey. Shortly after venturing into the underworld he would come across the situation that you find here - where bird women (sirens) lure men to their death through song. Homer was a Greek author from many centuries ago and his Odyssey has been used as inspiration by a huge number of western artists ever since.
Waterhouse provides a bold and ambitious composition within Ulysses and the Sirens. We see a man tied to the centre of the ship with rope. He looks out with horror as figures from the underworld appear around him, hovering menacingly whilst he is entirely unable to defend himself.
Beneath them is a beautifully decorative ship with two rows of sailors rowing through turbulent waters. A large rockface sits off in the background, giving the impression that there is nowhere to go in escaping these creatures. Waterhouse made use of the large canvas to implement detail on the ship, including bending front and rear, as well as rigging throughout.
Waterhouse's models appear again here, though in a less feminine, pure-minded appearance than normal. Here, the women are the clear danger, whilst the men are threatened directly. In other works he would use mythology to lure men with seemingly-sweet women, only for them to later fall foul of the disguised danger. Waterhouse became popular for this approach, but Ulysses and the Sirens does offer something slightly different in depicting a ship in such great detail.
The detail in this painting is extraordinary - the canvas of two metres wide by one metre tall is filled with stimulating items from the patchwork on the ship to the facial expressions of the many sirens who hover menacingly from above. The blue tones of the turbulent waves are also very typical of Waterhouse's career, something to be found in many of his paintings. Additionally there is a background of a rock face which adds perspective to the adjoining content.
Sent to the Royal Academy
In providing this painting for display at the Royal Academy, Waterhouse provided a small additional note which tried to remind the viewer of its link with another piece that he provided at the same time. He clearly saw the two as a series and wanted to make sure that those viewing the two would understand that. Of course, the tale depicted here is very well known and shouldn't really need much explanation by itself.
Large Image of Ulysses and the Sirens
Ulysses and the Sirens was a complex composition, amongst John William Waterhouse's most complex artworks. You can enjoy a larger image of it below, enabling you to see more of that impressive detail. The creatures from the underworld who float threatingly above the ship are particularly impressive additions to the composition. There is also some ornate detail added to the ship itself, with patterned elements across the side, as well as scale-like patterns on the front.
Ulysses and the Sirens