“Jealous Circe” hovers above the water, pouring poison, maybe at this very moment inventing the phrase “green with envy.”
Inspired by the Greek myth, Waterhouse depicts the goddess Circe, who has a reputation for transforming men into beasts, casting a spell by pouring a lurid potion into the sea. Just below the surface, a sea monster begins to form. Circe, with her vast knowledge of concoctions based on herbs, does her work with a frightening focus. The painting displays Waterhouse's continuing fascination with the single figure, usually a woman, combined with themes of magic and water, as in The Mermaid, The Siren, and his most famous work The Lady of Shalott.
Circe holds her vessel of poison chin high, the vertical stream of green liquid repeating Circe's verticality and the shape of the painting itself. The overall palette for the painting is a combination of greens: blue-greens, turquoise, and marine blue. The intensity of the colors demands attention, but it is Circe's expression that holds our interest. She is magnificent, brooding and mysterious. The simple setting, a dark and cool-toned underground grotto, does not distract from the action. With her powerful beauty, she casts a spell on enemy and viewer alike.
Circe Invidiosa is a virtuoso work of analogous colors--Waterhouse pushes the power of related colors to the extreme, using contrast and various tints to lead the eye through the action. Stained-glass like colors, created by painting on a white canvas to preserve the luminosity of the paint, are darker, more muted and more still in the background. The lighter and more vivid greens rush to the foreground where the wicked action takes place, giving the painting depth.
Waterhouse had attended a Pre-Raphaelite retrospective in 1886; his work, placing a beautiful woman in a mystical and water-themed setting draws a line directly to the movement established by William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais, a half-century earlier. Carefully detailed, tragic stories painted in jewel tones, harkening back to Flemish artists was their hallmark. Millais' Ophelia is a perfect example of the Pre-Raphaelite style that took art critic John Ruskin's advice to “go to nature...rejecting nothing, selecting nothing and scorning nothing” literally. The Pre-Raphaelites were some of the first to take their easels outdoors to capture the bend and sway of each blade of grass.
Later in his career, fifty years after the breakup of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Waterhouse picked up on their established subject line—serious themes that usually include a lesson--earning himself the nickname “the modern Pre-Raphaelite.” Despite the style having been passé for decades, Waterhouse took on their favorite topics but incorporated the techniques of the French painters of the time.
Contrasting with Circe's Pre-Raphaelite porcelain skin, the artist painted her gown in a more modern, impressionistic way. The brushwork of the circle pattern (Circe means circle in Greek, so this is sort of an in-joke for the well informed) is not minutely detailed but is loose and creates texture using visible brush strokes. Combining vivid, calm female subjects regardless of their dramatic situation with the loose brushwork of his fellow painters across the Channel, Waterhouse melded artistic movements.
Waterhouse often revisited themes--this painting of the sorceress is not his first approach to Circe. He had previously painted the same subject in 1891: Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses, she is seen having turned Ulysses's crew into lions, as she alluringly offers Ulysses himself the potion to drink. In 1911, Waterhouse will revisit Circe with The Sorceress.
As Waterhouse's painting career progressed, his works became larger and larger. Circe Invidiosa, painted in 1892, measures almost six feet tall by nearly three feet wide. As soon as Waterhouse completed the painting, it was purchased by the Art Gallery of South Australia where it is currently on display.
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