Circe Invidiosa

Circe Invidiosa
Circe Invidiosa by John William Waterhouse

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

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.)

4 thoughts on “Circe Invidiosa”

  1. I was fortunate enough to see this painting in both the Netherlands (Groningen) and the UK (London)last year. A selection committee (including Leighton, Pointer, and the agent-general for South Australia – Sir Arthur Blyth) bought it in 1892 from the artist after he exhibited it at the Royal Academy and it went to Adelaide.

    Anthony Hobson (1989) noted that Waterhouse “the statuesque figure of the … beautiful model is invested with an aura of menace which has much to do with the powerful folour scheme of deep greens and blues”. He hinted that the model had a sense of theatre; she is the same model as in “Circe offering the cup to Ulysses”.

    Trippi (2002) adds that Waterhouse depicted “not the gruesome metamorphosis but Circe’s malice” and he suggests that the pose is an ironic analogue to Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus”. Both women have precarious footings, one on a sea creature, the other on a shell. The pose, and glassy stare, is similar to that of Ellen Terry in Sargent’s portrait, “Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth”; and Waterhouse was interested in the occult and in mesmerism.

    Finally, Prettejohn (2009) in the catalogue to the Groningen/London exhibition, suggests that the artist took his cue for the extraordinary colour scheme “from Ovid’s description of Circe putting on ‘caerula velamina’, robes the colour of the blue-green sea … In Ovid’s narative, Scylla wades waist-deep into the poisoned water which transforms the lower half of her body into barking dogs … However, the monster (in the painting) displays fish-like and serpentine, tahter than dog-headed forms, and a later letter from Waterhouse indicates that he meant the monster simply to demonstrates the eveil effects of the poison.”

  2. Thank you to for the link to the Trippi interview. I’ve been fortunate to hear Peter Trippi lecture twice – the first time shortly after his monograph of Waterhouse had been published (2003) and the second as the exhibition was opening in London (2009). Both lectures, followed by questions, were at The Pre-Rapahelite Society in Birmingham, U.K. Peter Trippi is a splendid lecturer – really good value1 I’m sure each member of the audience came away feeling enriched by his knowledge and his enthusiasm – and his interpretations / comparisons such as the movie still comparison he makes in the interview on the Waterhouse website.

    I wrote a short piece about visiting the exhibition in Groningen and took some pictures of the exterior of the gallery there. If you would like, I would be happy to email copies to you. The main “advert” for the show – on banners throughout Groningen – was “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”.

  3. I saw this particular painting of Waterhouse in an exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery and was astonished by the vivid colours of the blues which never comes over in reproductions. It’s one of my favourites but Waterhouse is generally a favourite. His superb painting The Crystal Ball was the one I chose for the cover of my new Pre-Raph novel (The Crimson Bed). Again the reds are deepened in the reproduction but, alas, the original is in Mexico now so I doubt we’ll ever get to see it over here.


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