Waterhouse is an adept at blending feminine beauty and mystery. Here he depicts the goddess Circe amidst shades of greens and blues, creating a world that draws us in and mesmerizes. If you really look at this painting, you can feel yourself transported into Circe’s world: you can hear the water echoing through a secluded grotto. It is dark. Calm and cool. And it is beautiful. Not a passive beauty, but a powerful beauty born of Circe’s focus and intensity.
The goddess Circe is mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey and in Hesiod’s Theogeny, as well in other ancient Greek writings. She is a goddess of magic and metamorphosis:
KIRKE (or Circe) was a goddess pharmakeia (witch or sorceress) who lived with her nymph attendants on the mythical island of Aiaia. She was skilled in the magic of metamorphosis, the power of illusion, and the dark art of necromancy. When Odysseus landed on her island she transformed his men into animals, but with the help of the god Hermes, he overcame the goddess and forced her to release his men from her spell. Kirke’s name was derived from the Greek verb kirkoô meaning “to secure with rings” or “hoop around”–a reference to her magical powers. (Via Theoi.com)
It is Waterhouse’s simplicity that I admire in this painting. We are not distracted by background scenes. It is all about Circe. Waterhouse has chosen to depict Circe in a scene from Ovid’s Metamorphoses:
Having tried without success to lure the deity Glaucus away from the object of his affection the beautiful nymph Scylla, Circe is filled with envious rage. In the seclusion of a quiet grotto, she poisons the water where Scylla goes to bathe and turns her rival into a dreadful sea monster. Waterhouse’s handling of the scene is brilliantly economical. With grim determination, Circe empties a bowl of green poison into the waters, half hovering, half standing on the already transformed Scylla, who writhes beneath the surface. Her waist-length hair, meanwhile billows up and out, as if disturbed by a rush of deadly vapours” (Trumble, Angus. Love and Death in the Age of Queen Victoria. Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia. 2002.)