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.

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.