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“The Sirens and Ulysses” by William Etty

The Sirens and Ulysses by William Etty, 1837

“The Sirens and Ulysses” by William Etty depicts the scene from Homer’s Odyssey, in which Odysseus, who was called Ulysses by the Romans, is 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 own 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.

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.”

Etty made every effort to ensure realism in the picture, going as far as to visit mortuaries to sketch corpses in varying stages of decay to ensure the accuracy of the cadavers on the beach.

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 considered it

“a disgusting combination of voluptuousness and loathsome putridity—glowing in colour and wonderful in execution, but conceived 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 complete and it was soon 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 lifes. Etty earned respect at the Royal Academy of Arts for his ability to paint realistic flesh tones. As a timid man, Etty rarely socialised and never married, and while he was Methodist, he was also deeply attached to the Roman Catholic Church.

Essential Facts:

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

Artist Essential Facts:

  • Name:                    William Etty
  • Born:                      1787 – York
  • Died:                      1849 (aged 62) – York
  • Nationality:          English
  • Notable work
    • The Triumph of Cleopatra (1821)
    • The Combat: Woman Pleading for the Vanquished (1825)
    • Youth on the Prow, and Pleasure at the Helm (1832)
    • The Sirens and Ulysses (1837)
    • Musidora: The Bather ‘At the Doubtful Breeze Alarmed’ (1843)


“Great events make me quiet and calm; it is only trifles that irritate my nerves.” Queen Victoria



Photo Credit: William Etty [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons