J W Waterhouse
Circe Invidiosa

J W Waterhouse, Britain, 1849 - 1917, Circe Invidiosa, 1892, London, oil on canvas, 180.7 x 87.4 cm; South Australian Government Grant 1892, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

About this work of art

John William Waterhouse’s painting of the mythical enchantress Circe is a tale of bitterness and jealousy.

Circe Invidiosa, meaning 'Envious Circe', is based on a passage from Ovid's classical poem, Metamorphoses, in which Circe tries and fails to lure the sea-god Glaucus away from the beautiful nymph Scylla. Enraged with jealousy, Circe poisons the sea where Scylla baths, transforming her beautiful rival into a hideous sea monster.

In Waterhouse’s mesmerising and otherworldly depiction, Circe’s toxic potion is a lurid green, the colour of envy. It is not just the sea at her feet that she has turned green but seemingly the atmosphere around her. Through the image of the fixated Circe, Waterhouse reminds us that jealousy is most poisonous to the person who creates and exudes it.

Waterhouse was one of the most prominent British artists of the late Victorian era. Born in Rome in 1849, he studied at the Royal Academy Schools from 1870 and began exhibiting extensively in London the following year. Although he subscribed to many of the central tenets of the Pre-Raphaelite artists, Waterhouse’s work is more closely aligned with that of the Olympians – an informal cohort of artists who draw inspiration from ancient Greek and Roman mythologies to illustrate complex moral tales.

In 1883 the Art Gallery of South Australia became the first collecting institution in the world to recognise Waterhouse’s artistic genius when it acquired his painting The favourites of the Emperor Honorius, his first work to enter a public institution.

A decade later, it acquired Circe Invidiosa after it was shown at the Royal Academy in London, but the new work received was given a mixed reception in Adelaide. Reviews in several Adelaide newspapers asserted that the painting ‘repels rather than attracts the average sightseer’. Another detractor insisted that ‘Circe is not an attractive picture, and never will become generally popular.’

Despite these early criticisms, Circe Invidiosa is today one of the most beloved and reproduced works in the Gallery’s collection.

Audio description of the work of art

Painted in 1892 in London, by John William Waterhouse this oil on canvas is 181cms high and 87cms wide, surrounded by a deep gilded frame. The outer edge of the frame is a deep contoured moulding, the second level an ornate border of acanthus leaves, another moulded edge and then a simple flat inner frame. At the base of the work written in grey text, along a narrow plate, capital letters is a line read “106 Circe Invidiosa, by JW Waterhouse R.A. 19th-20thCent. English Purchased 1892”.

In contrast to the ornate highly gilded frame the painting is dark and foreboding. It conjures the intensity of the enchantress Circe, who dominates the middle of the painting, she stands holding a glass bowl at chest height. The pale skin of her face, arms, and feet luminous against the foreboding background of dark forest and strangely quiet sea. She is intent, mesmerized, her head bowed towards the bowl of green liquid she carefully pours from the front lip of the bowl.

In the upper half of the painting, there is little light in the forest of dark browns and blacks, behind her head there is a row of tree trunks with glimpses of dark foliage . The forest edge drops down to the water, and a loose suggestion of gnarled roots and two large, rugged rocks contrast with the smooth blue–green water. A few touches of white indicate gentle waves lapping at the side of a rock on the middle right of the painting. The flat blended surface of mottled blue and deep greens is strange and deceptively still for a sea.

Circe’s gown has feather-like, rounded medallions in blacks and greens, like peacock feathers, and is clasped at the left shoulder not unlike a classic Roman toga. The fabric gathers at the waist held in place by a thin strip of dark material and falls in vertical folds to her ankles. The loose drapes billow slightly at the sides, exposing the flesh of her right hip. Circe’s body is angled towards the right, her elbows are bent, and she holds a wide shallow glass bowl in front of her, filled with a luminous green potion.

Circe’s dark hair is centrally parted and pulled back behind her neck, it almost disappears into the black shadows of the background. Her head is bowed forward, lowered so the triangular face in three quarters view is foreshortened. Dark intense eyes beneath hooded brows, a long nose and full lips are expertly rendered. We are drawn to the shadowed eyes, the intensity of Circe’s gaze, her jealous intent, and her focus on the lip of the wide shallow glass bowl as she pours the potion into the water where her rival bathes. The vertical folds in the gown reinforce the downward flow of the potion, as it cascades the length of her body in a thin vicious stream; its deadly green poison stirs the waters at her feet into broiling bubbling motion.

As the potion hits the sea a reaction ensues, creating bubbles and a whirlpool at her feet. Circe stands bare footed on the head of a large creature, her toes just behind its eyes, the water level on its cheeks, its mouth open beneath the stream of toxic liquid from her bowl. The sea monster is barely discernible, disguised in the turbulence of the blue greens and black of the water. Its spikey back a train to Circe’s gown, its small dragon-like wings stretch to the edges of the painting, and on the right its tail creates a wave alongside Circe’s feet. Bubbles and wide ripples create a pond like circle at the bottom of the work.

The artists signature J. W. Waterhouse is painted in black on the lower right of the work.