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“Ulysses and the Sirens” in Art

"Ulysses and the Sirens" by John William Waterhouse

“Ulysses and the Sirens” by John William Waterhouse

Ulysses and the Sirens in Art

“Ulysses and the Sirens” by John William Waterhouse

“Ulysses and the Sirens” by John William Waterhouse dramatically illustrates an episode from the journeys of the Greek hero Odysseus, who is better known as Ulysses, the Latin variant.

This painting depicts the incident in which the infamous Sirens lured unwary sailors towards perilous rocks and their doom by singing their enchanting songs. Ulysses was curious to ear the Sirens song, and so, on the advice of Circe, he had all of his sailors plug their ears with beeswax and then allowed himself to be tied to the mast. He ordered his men to leave him tied tightly to the mast, no matter how much he would beg.

When Ulysses heard their beautiful song, he ordered the sailors to untie him, but they bound him tighter. When they had passed out of earshot, Odysseus was released.

Waterhouse has depicted the Siren with the body of a bird and the head of a beautiful woman. This depiction was as a surprise to his Victorian-era audiences, which were used to seeing these mythic creatures portrayed as beautiful mermaid-like nymphs. Waterhouse took this unconventional approach after seeing the motif of the bird body on an ancient Greek vase in the British Museum.

When “Ulysses and the Sirens” was first exhibited at London’s Royal Academy in 1891, the painting was praised by most art critics of the day. One critic declared it:

“a very startling triumph … a very carnival of color, mosaicked and balanced with a skill more consummate than even the talented artist was credited with.”

Waterhouse (1849 – 1917) worked in the Pre-Raphaelite style, several decades after the breakup of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which included artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and William Holman Hunt.

Waterhouse embraced the Pre-Raphaelite style even though it had gone out of fashion in the British art scene, by the time he painted this painting.

Ulysses and the Sirens

  • Title:                      Ulysses and the Sirens
  • Artist:                    John William Waterhouse
  • Medium:               Oil on canvas
  • Date:                    1891
  • Style:                     Pre-Raphaelite
  • Dimensions:          Height: 100.6 cm (39.6″); Width: 202 cm (79.5″)
  • Museum:               National Gallery of Victoria

John William Waterhouse

  • Name:                       John William Waterhouse
  • Born:                        1849 – Rome, Papal States
  • Died:                        1917 (aged 67) – London, England, United Kingdom
  • Nationality:               British
  • Movement:               Pre-Raphaelite

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“The Sirens and Ulysses” by William Etty

"The Sirens and Ulysses" by William Etty

“The Sirens and Ulysses” by William Etty

“The Sirens and Ulysses” by William Etty depicts a scene from Homer’s Odyssey. It shows Ulysses becoming bewitched by the song of the Sirens.

Ulysses was warned about the Sirens; however, he wanted to hear the song. So he ordered his ship’s crew to tie him up and to block their ears to prevent themselves from hearing the song and becoming bewitched.  Etty portrayed the Sirens as naked young women on an island strewn with decaying corpses.

Etty made every effort to ensure realism in the picture. He even visited mortuaries to sketch corpses in varying stages of decay to make sure the accuracy of the bodies on the beach. This painting by Etty is considered among his most significant works, and his most massive in size, measuring 442.5 cm by 297 cm (14 ft 6 in by 9 ft 9 in). Etty wrote that it illustrated:

“The importance of resisting sensual delights.”

The painting, with its juxtaposition of male and female nudity and decaying corpses, immediately divided opinion. Some critics considered it one of the finest artworks, while others thought it:

“a disgusting combination of voluptuousness and loathsome putridity… in the worst possible taste”.

“The Sirens and Ulysses” was painted using an experimental technique, which caused it to begin to deteriorate as soon as it was completed. It was quickly considered in too poor a condition for continued public display and was placed in the gallery’s archives. Restoration began on the work in 2003, and in 2010 the painting went on show after over 150 years after being consigned to storage.

William Etty was best known for his history paintings containing nude figures. He was the first significant British painter of nudes and still life. Etty earned respect at the Royal Academy of Arts for his ability to paint realistic flesh tones. As a timid man, Etty rarely socialized and never married, and while he was Methodist, he was also deeply attached to the Roman Catholic Church.

The Sirens and Ulysses

  • Title:                The Sirens and Ulysses
  • Artist:              William Etty
  • Medium:         Oil on canvas
  • Date:               1837
  • Dimensions:    297 × 442.5 cm (116.9 × 174.2 in)
  • Type:               Mythological Paintings
  • Museum:         Manchester Art Gallery

William Etty

  • Name:         William Etty
  • Born:           1787 – York
  • Died:           1849 (aged 62) – York
  • Nationality: English

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“Ulysses and the Sirens” by Herbert James Draper

Ulysses and the Sirens

“Ulysses and the Sirens” by Herbert James Draper

“Ulysses and the Sirens” by Herbert James Draper depicts an episode in the epic poem Odyssey by Homer in which the voices of Sirens torment Ulysses. Although there are only two Sirens in Homer’s poem and they stay onshore, the painting shows Ulysses tied to the mast and forcibly attracted to three Sirens’ seductions.

Although the Sirens were depicted in ancient Greek art as ugly creatures, Draper, as with most modern artists, has transferred the Sirens’ seductiveness from their song to a visible form. The artist has depicted the Sirens as beautiful mermaids who invade Ulysses’ ship. The Sirens are nude, and their tails disappear as they board the ship.

The conflation of Sirens with mermaids and the sexualization of the Sirens is consistent with other artwork of the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

Draper also painted a reduced replica that is housed at the Leeds Art Gallery.

Herbert James Draper (1863 – 1920) was an English Classicist painter whose career began in the Victorian era and extended through the first two decades of the 20th century. During his lifetime Draper was quite famous, a well-known portrait painter.

“Ulysses and the Sirens” by Herbert James Draper

  • Title:                The Sirens and Ulysses
  • Artist:              Herbert James Draper
  • Medium:         Oil on canvas
  • Date:               1909
  • Dimensions:    Height: 177 cm (69.6″); Width: 213.5 cm (84″)
  • Type:               Mythological Paintings
  • Museum:          Ferens Art Gallery and Leeds Art Gallery

Herbert James Draper

  • Artist:             Herbert James Draper
  • Born:              1863 – London, England
  • Died:              1920 – London, England
  • Nationality:    English
  • Movement:    Classicism

Ulysses is the legendary Greek king of Ithaca and the hero of Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey. Ulysses also plays a key role in Homer’s Iliad. In the Odyssey, Ulysses has to endure ten years of adventures before he can return home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. On the way home from Troy, one of the significant incidences is his encounter with the Sirens.

Some post-Homeric authors state that the Sirens were fated to die if someone heard their singing and escaped them and that after Odysseus passed by, they, therefore, flung themselves into the water and perished.

A Virtual Tour of the Art of Everything

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“Some things you will think of yourself,…some things God will put into your mind.”
– Homer, The Odyssey

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Photo Credit:  1) John William Waterhouse / Public domain; 2)  William Etty [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; 3)Herbert James Draper / Public domain