Ulysses and the Sirens
- oil on canvas
- 100.6 × 202.0 cm
- Accession Number
- International Painting
- Credit Line
- National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
© Public Domain
- Gallery location
- 19th Century European Paintings Gallery
Level 2, NGV International
Exhibited Royal Academy, London, 1891, no. 475; purchased from the artist for the NGV, 1891.
Exhibited Royal Academy, London, 1891, no. 475; Victorian Olympians, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 20 June –20 July 1975, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 12 August –14 September 1975, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 26 September –26 October 1975, no. 39; Queens & sirens: Archaeology in 19th century art and design, Geelong Art Gallery, Geelong, 26 September – 1 November 1998, no. 9; European Masterpieces: Six Centuries of Paintings from the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne touring to Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati 27 October 2000–14 January 2001, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, 18 March – 26 May 2001, Denver Art Museum, Denver, 23 June – 9 September 2001, Portland Art Museum October 2001–6 January 2002, no. 77; J.W. Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite, Groninger Museum, Groningen; Royal Academy of the Arts, London; Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, December 2008 – February 2010, no. 22.
Frame: Original, maker unknown
This dramatic painting illustrates an episode from the journeys of the Greek hero Odysseus (in Latin, Ulysses) told in the poet Homer’s Odyssey in which the infamous Sirens lured unwary sailors towards perilous rocks and their doom by singing in the most enchanting manner. Odysseus wished to hear the Siren’s song and ordered his crew to lash him to a mast and block their ears in order to ensure their safe passage. Waterhouse has depicted each Siren with the body of a bird and the head of a beautiful woman, which came as a surprise to Victorian audiences, who were more used to seeing these mythic creatures portrayed as comely mermaid-like nymphs. He borrowed the motif from an ancient Greek vase that he studied 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. MH Spielmann, writing for the Magazine of Art, declared it: ‘a very startling triumph … a very carnival of colour, mosaicked and balanced with a skill more consummate than even the talented artist was credited with … The quality of the painting is … a considerable advance upon all his antecedent work’.
At the time of Sir Hubert von Herkomer’s purchase of this picture for the National Gallery of Victoria, in June 1891, the Ulysses was only the second work by John William Waterhouse to be acquired for a public gallery.