Sorceresses and a tale from Homer.
Despite Waterhouse marrying his wife Esther in a Church of England church and attending services there, he continued to be fascinated by the occult and magic rituals. Miracles, magic, and the capacity to prophesise were common motifs in many of Waterhouse’s paintings. His 1884 work entitled Consulting the Oracle was a depiction of one such ritual.
The painting depicts a group of seven young women, all seated in a semicircle around a lamplit shrine. There is excitement in their facial expressions as they listen to the words of the priestess who is interpreting the words of the Oracle. The Oracle was sometimes referred to as the Teraph. A Teraph (plural Teraphim), according to the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, a western translation of the Torah from the land of Israel, the Teraphim were originally human heads, taken from first born male adults who had been sacrificed. The head was then shaved salted and spiced. It was believed that Teraphic heads could talk and give guidance. In Waterhouse’s painting, the Teraph or Oracle was fixed against a wall and in front of it were lighted lamps. Such was the performance of the priestess that the fascinated female onlookers were although enthusiastic were also tense and became agitated, so much so, that they too believed that they had heard the Oracle’s low voice speaking of what was to happen in the future. The atmosphere in the room is intoxicating with presence of incense from the burning lamps. The priestess signals to the women to be quiet whilst she struggles to hear the Oracle’s words. She moves her ear close to the lips of the Teraph and, as we see in the depiction, she turns to the women with a spellbound expression, causing a tenseness in the demeanour of her followers as they await the pronouncements that have emanated from the mummified head. Anthony Hobson in his 1980 book, The Art and Life of J.W. Waterhouse, RA, 1849-1917, compares the painting’s depiction to the shape of a keyhole:
“…This refers not to some telescopic view of the scene but to the keyhole shape of the figure grouping, in which a ring of spectators concentrate their attention upon another single figure…”
The background is made up of a series of arched windows and the painting’s setting was probably invented by Waterhouse but even knowing that, it still has an enigmatic Middle Eastern feeling and he could well have been influenced by the orientalist paintings of John Frederick Lewis.
The Illustrated London News featured the picture, Consulting the Oracle, as one of the principal works of the year and reproduced it across two pages of the journal’s extra supplement. The painting was bought by Sir Henry Tate, the English sugar merchant and philanthropist, who included it in his founding bequest to the nation in 1894 and can be found in the Tate Britain collection.
Two years later Waterhouse completed another painting in the same vein, entitled The Magic Circle. This was Waterhouse’s first painting since being elected as an Associate of the Royal Academy. Egyptian architecture acts as a backdrop to the painting. The main character is a dark-haired sorceress chanting invocations over a bubbling cauldron whilst simultaneously marking out in the ground the magic circle cited in the title of the work. As the stick drags along the earth it creates smoke and the circle starts to glow white. In her left hand she grasps a druidical boline, a sickle-like implement which was used by witches to harvest magical herbs, some of which can be seen tucked into a sash around her waist.
Around her neck is an Ouroboros, an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its own tail. This is one of the oldest mystical symbols in the world and appears in many cultures. It characterises the circle of life, conception out of destruction, life out of death, in an everlasting cycle of renewal and was closely related to the Egyptian legend of Isis and Osiris, the first Pharaoh of Egypt, who married Isis, his one true love. In Britain in the 1880’s Egyptian legends and the occult were very popular. To add to this air of dark mystery we see the sorceress surrounded by a sinister group of ravens, which, in pagan belief, are portents and messengers of bad luck. If we should have any doubt about their symbolism look at the raven standing behind her. It is perched on a skull and cries out to the sorceress.
Other paintings by his contemporaries may have influenced Waterhouse to complete such a work. There was Frederick Sandys’ famous 1868 work, Medea, which also depicted an evil dark-haired sorceress chanting over a simmering pot with her magic accoutrements set out on the table before her. This painting was submitted to the hanging jury of the Royal Academy for inclusion in the 1868 Summer Exhibition but it was rejected. Art historians talk about this rejection as having nothing to do with the quality of the work but the rejection was solely a matter of internal politics, and petty jealousies.
Another work thought to have influenced and inspired Waterhouse to paint The Magic Circle was Dante Rossetti’s 1878 painting, Astarte Syriaca, the ancient Syrian goddess of love.
Another sorceress who featured in Waterhouse’s paintings was Circe, a goddess of magic or sometimes a nymph, enchantress or sorceress in Greek mythology. Circe was famous for her extensive knowledge of potions and herbs. Through the use of these and a magic wand or staff, she would transform her enemies into animals. Waterhouse did not exhibit any of his work at the 1890 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. This was the first time he had failed to put forward a work for the exhibition since his first offering in 1874. It is thought the reason was two-fold. At the beginning of 1890 his father died and this was a very emotional time for Waterhouse. The second reason was that he spent much of his time in 1890 travelling around Italy. With the arrival of 1891 came the arrival of a turning point in Waterhouse’s art. He abandoned the series of subjects from ancient history and embarked on a project focused on myths and legends of pagan antiquity. It was a time when his work began to feature mythological subjects and Alfred Baldry, an English art critic and painter, wrote in his 1895 article for The Studio, an illustrated fine arts and decorative arts magazine, that he had observed that Waterhouse’s new conviction was a definite inclination towards a picturesque mysticism and that he was a painter of mystic suggestions.
After not exhibiting at the Royal Academy the previous year, Waterhouse completed two paintings featuring Circe, both drawn from Homer’s Odyssey and the story of the wanderings of Ulysses to the mouth of the underworld. One painting was entitled Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses which Waterhouse exhibited at the New Gallery in London, which had been founded in 1888. The New Gallery was an important venue for Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic movement artists. Many of the well-known artists of the time exhibited their work at this new gallery including Edward Burne-Jones, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, William Holman Hunt, George Frederic Watts and Lord Leighton. In the depiction we see the figure of Circe regally enthroned between two bronze lions. Circe dominates the depiction as she towers above the observer. She has transformed Ulysses’ men into swine, two of which we see lying on the floor besides her throne. All we see of Ulysses is his small reflection in the circular mirror behind her. He is hesitant as he reaches for his sword. In Homer’s tale, Ulysses takes control and overpowers Circe but in Waterhouse’s depiction it is all about the power of the sorceress as she raises her magic wand and threatens the interloper. Circe is dressed in a transparent blue gauze, which has slipped down on one side revealing her breast. Through the gauze we see her limbs. She looks haughtily down at Ulysses who she intends to seduce.
Waterhouse’s other painting, which he completed in 1891, was included in that year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. The dramatic work was simply entitled Ulysses and the Sirens and is currently housed in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. It once again represented a passage from Homer’s Odyssey and the event comes after Ulysses had encountered Circe and was now on his way out of the Underworld. It is a pictorial account of his meeting with the Sirens, the bird women whose bewitching songs lure incautious sailors and their ships on to dangerous rocks and to their deaths. Waterhouse had a note appended to the painting when it was exhibited noting that it was Circe who had instructed Ulysses to resist the Siren’s baneful songs by stopping the ears of his men with wax and had himself bound to the mast of the ship and by adding this note Waterhouse had insured that people knew about Circe and her magic arts and reminded them of the connection between this work and the one he was exhibiting at the New Gallery. Waterhouse also wanted to remind people that it was not just through the bravery of Ulysses that his boat and crew had survived the Sirens but it was through the advice of Circe. It is interesting to note that Waterhouse depicted seven sirens whereas in Homer’s tale there were only two. Maybe it was because the number seven is looked upon as the “magic number”. Waterhouse has depicted each Siren with the body of a bird and the head of a beautiful woman and it is thought he had seen a similar depiction on an ancient Greek vase housed in the British Museum.
The imaginary setting of this work could have come from Waterhouse’s Italian travels especially the time he spent in Capri and what we see in the work is very similar to the rock formation of the Marina Piccola which lies below the town of Capri. The painting received enormous praise from the art critics of the time. Marion Spielmann, the prolific Victorian art critic and scholar and who was the editor of The Connoisseur and Magazine of Art, and looked upon as one of the most powerful figures in the late Victorian art world. Of Waterhouse’s painting, he declared it to be:
“…a very startling triumph … a very carnival of colour, mosaicked and balanced with a skill more consummate than even the talented artist was credited with … The quality of the painting is … a considerable advance upon all his antecedent work…”
The painting was bought by Sir Hubert von Herkomer for the National Gallery of Victoria, in June 1891, the Ulysses was only the second work by John William Waterhouse to be acquired for a public gallery.
A year later Circe is depicted in another of Waterhouse’s paintings. The 1892 work is entitled Circe Invidiosa: Circe Poisoning the Sea. It is a dramatic vertical format which only adds to the menacing storyline. The scene depicted by Waterhouse comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in which Circe is angered by the refusal of the fisherman turned sea god, Glaucus, to abandon his beloved Scylla and takes revenge by pouring a baneful of green poison into the pool where she knows Scylla often bathes. Circe took plants of poisonous powers and mixed them together, with incantations and charms and poured her poisonous mixture into the pool and muttered over it incantations of mighty power. Scylla came as usual and plunged into the water up to her waist. The poisoned water transformed the lower half of her body into barking dogs.
Waterhouse returned to the Circe motif around 1914 when he completed two more oil sketches featuring the sorceress. In one we see Circe, in profile, with her hair swept back in a tight bun sitting forward in a marble chair with her elbows resting on a marble table. She wears a bright red shift dress. She is lost in contemplation. In front of her, on the table, is an open manuscript. To her right is a bottle containing a red potion. All around her are all her tools needed for her magic arts.
As in the previous work, in this second oil sketch, we see Circe resting her chin on her hands and in this version, we see her clasping her magic wand. The sketch is more detailed. To her right is a stone-arched window through which we glimpse a dense and dark forest. In front of the window we see a book of spells propped up for her to read. A flask containing a red potion sits on top of table and in front of her there is a gold chalice which has tipped up and a red liquid has spilt on the table. On the opposite side of the square table are three wild animals who stare at Circe.
..…………….to be continued.