At the request of the wonderful laclefdescoeurs, today I’m writing about John William Waterhouse’s 1892 painting Circe Invidiosa.
One of Waterhouse’s defining features as a painter is what Christie’s calls his “particular brand of late, academic Pre-Raphaelitism.”
I might quibble, as the Tate does, that he only “revived the literary themes popularised by the Pre-Raphaelites, though he was not Pre-Raphaelite in technique,” and indeed “[h]is fondness for backgrounds conceived as blocks of colour and tone, as well as the broad, chunky brushwork of his draperies and accessories, ultimately derive from such European prototypes as Jules Bastien-Lepage.”
Certainly the setting has none of the careful precision of, say, Millais’ Ophelia, while the composition has greater depth and three-dimensionality than the somewhat more (superficially) comparable work of Rosetti’s.
And indeed, he was very much a painter of his own time, not merely a mimic of the past: as the Royal Academy puts it, “Waterhouse’s paintings reflect his engagement with contemporary issues ranging from antiquarianism and the classical heritage to occultism and the ‘New Woman.’”
That said, he nonetheless picks up very Pre-Raphaelite themes, as Circe indicates.
Here clearly from a Roman text—Ovid’s Metamorphoses—rather than a Greek, this second of Waterhouse’s three versions of Circe pours a viscous and vividly green concoction into the glass-like water below her. Meanwhile a creature roils the water from beneath her feet, foreshadowing the monstrous transformation Circe’s rival in love will undergo as a result of Circe’s sorcery.
The near-abstraction of the background, though not especially Pre-Raphaelite, serves a useful end: Circe seems to float over the surface of the painting as she does over the water—interacting with it but sharply distinct from it—making her the clear and vivid focal point of the image.