Circe’s Transformations: Art Images of the Greek Sorceress Through The Ages

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Before Madeline Miller’s hit book Circe intrigued me , I was unfamiliar with this Greek goddess. It turns out that she’s been an inspirational muse for artists through 2,500 years! In fact, browsing the evolution of her representations makes an excellent study in culture and art. It seems her beauty and power over nature and men provide endless material for the creative imagination. Moreover, observing Circe’s transformations reveals much about changing attitudes toward women, culture, and the human condition.

First, a quick introduction highlighting elements that you’ll see in the art. Circe is born to the Titan god of the sun, Helios, and Perse, one of 3,000 daughters of another Titan god, Oceanus. She is banished by the gods to a deserted island, where she develops her sorcery skills in loneliness. At some point she obtains a loom for weaving cloth, which appears in many of the art works. She becomes adept at transforming beings into beasts, and lives in her lonely palace surrounded by strangely tame animals such as lions and tigers. Eventually, she also learns to command nature to cover the skies. 

She appears most famously in The Odyssey, when Odysseus (also spelled Ulysses in the Roman version) moors his boats on her island. A scouting party is all turned to swine by her magic potion and wand, save for Odysseus’s relative who comes back with the terrible news. Odysseus determines to confront the witch and rushes to the palace. The god Hermes (equivalent to the Roman Mercury) stops Odysseus long enough to tell him Circe’s secret, and gives him a powerful antidote for her poison. In many traditional versions, Hermes tells Odysseus to not fear drinking the potion, to confront her with his sword to secure her oath to do no harm, and to force her to sleep with him. (Miller’s version makes it less aggressive without the rape aspect). After Circe succumbs and restores Odysseus’ men to their original state, the party lingers on the island as Odysseus and Circe produce at least one child together.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, another Circe story emerged that received attention by subsequent artists. This story told of her jealous act concerning another nymph, Scylla, a rival for the attention of the sea god Glaucus whom Circe also loved. Circe poisoned the water in which Scylla bathed, turning her into a hideous sea monster.

The value of myth is that it takes all the things you know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the veil of familiarity.

C. S. Lewis

If you want to know more, I highly recommend Madeline Miller’s novel Circe.

I hope you find the following images as bewitching as the seductive sorceress!

Ancient Greek Representations

Naturally Circe appears on ancient Greek vases for her part in the Homerian legends. As later artists would find, the chance to draw men turning into pigs is nearly irresistible! Odysseus and his phallic sword are popular additions to the scenes with the beautiful enchanter. 

Circe on a 490–480 BCE oil jar, Athens-National Archaeological Museum
Circe dropping her cup and fleeing Odysseus across the lower tier of an Attic red-figure krater (c. 440 bc)
Circe and Odysseus’ men, Athenian red-figure pelike C5th B.C.
Pseudo-Chalcidian Black Figureca 520 B.C
The naked witch Circe faces Odysseus who draws his sword to compel her to restore his men to human form. Two of these stand to either side–one is depicted as a boar with the face of man and the other as a man with the head and forelegs of a boar.
Circe and transformed man, Athenian red-figure neck amphora C5th B.C.
Odysseus and Circe, Athenian red-figure oinochoe C5th B.C.

This is a Boeotian (from Thebes) Cabirion Ware in the shape called a “skyphos.” Odysseus draws his sword while Circe holds a skyphos, mixing her potion, with her loom in the background. 

There may have been Roman or “Middle Age” depictions of Circe, but on the Web there’s a large gap. After the Greek vases, the next available images are from the 

Early Renaissance

Renaissance, or “rebirth,” refers to European culture’s re-awakened interest in antiquity and humanism. Italian writer, poet, and humanist Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375, Florence) revived Circe’s image in his book Concerning Famous Women. Boccaccio intended the short biographies of both historical and mythological women to encourage virtue…and included examples of both wicked and good women. Circe would have been one of the examples of what to avoid in becoming a virtuous woman!

“Circea” in Boccaccio‘s c. 1365 De Claris Mulieribus, (Concerning Famous Women)a catalogue of famous women, from a 1474 edition
Circe as a frivolous lover surrounded by her animals from a French translation of Boccaccio’s work on famous women (Rouen, France, c. 1440)

Likely inspired by Boccaccio, the Italian-French author Christine de Pizan wrote on morals and politics in France, where she served as a court writer for Charles VI. Her books provided advice to, and defended the status of, women of high stature. The Book of the City of Ladies (le Livre de la Cité des Dames, c. 1405) was probably her most popular work, and included 36 women in Part 1, one of whom was Circe. She was writing in reaction to an even more popular work, The Romance of the Rose (Le Roman de la Rose) by Jean de Meun, which portrayed all women as sensual seductresses.

Pizan created an allegory of a city whose building blocks are famous historical and mythical women, making the argument that women are valuable participants in society and worthy of receiving education. In the illustrated manuscript example here, we see Circe seated as a royal queen towering over the men.

Circe and her herd of human-beasts with Odysseus’s crew, from the works of Christine de Pizan (Paris, c. 1410–c. 1414)

By the late 15thCentury, artists had begun mastering the technique of perspective in the 

High Renaissance and Mannerist Period

Dosso Dossi (real name Giovanni di Niccolò de Luteri, 1489-1542) was a northern Italian painter who followed the Venice-inspired Ferrara School of artists. He was inspired by the myths, setting scenes in a dream-like atmosphere with contrasting colors and unusual poses.  His works include two very different depictions of Circe—one elaborately clothed with a complex environment, and one nude in a more natural setting.

The first connects her with royal-like power over men, the vanquished and empty suit of armor as her trophy. She’s dressed in royal blues and reds, which were very expensive and rare dyes of the time.

Dosso Dossi ‘The Sorceress Circe’ c. 1530 in the Borghese Gallery, Rome

This second version puts Circe in a more idyllic natural state. There are no royal clothes or signs of conquered warriors. Her lovers are the domesticated animals, none of them predators such as lions or tigers. One of the dogs sports a bright collar, possibly jeweled. Perhaps these are men she has transformed into animals…but her gaze into the distance shows she is looking for something more.

Dosso Dossi‘s Circe and Her Lovers (c. 1525)

The Latin poet Virgil told the story of an heroic legend, Aeneas, who was on the losing side to Ulysses and the Greeks in the Trojan war. Aeneas escaped the sacking and burning of Troy, and through many adventures, settled in Italy, where Virgil’s Aeneid explains that his descendants founded the great city of Rome.

German printer Johann Grüninger produced woodcut illustrations of Virgil’s stories in 1502 in Strasbourg, which were used to make another printing in Lyon in 1517. An anonymous, talented artist likely used those woodcuts to make brilliant enamel paintings on copper, with some gold-leaf gilt to further enhance the luminous work.

In Book 7 of the Aeneid, Aeneas’ wet nurse, Caieta dies, and he honors her with a funeral. Afterwards, they continue sailing on a calm sea, their course taking them within earshot of Circe’s island. They hear the sounds of humans turned into wild beasts, probably striking fear into their hearts. Fortunately, Neptune sends a favoring wind to take them past the island without stopping. Circe appears as a royal queen in courtly deep-blue dress, a fire burning in the background near her castle, perhaps in preparation for more potion-making. With wand in right hand, she reigns over her caged animals, alone in exile. The ghost of Caieta appears to look on in pity from the upper right. 

Aeneas Erects a Tomb to his Nurse, Caieta, and Flees the Country of Circe (Aeneid, Book VII)

Florentine painter Alessandro di Cristofano di Lorenzo del Bronzino Allori  (Alessandro Allori, 1535-1607) painted in the late Mannerist style. Influenced by Raphael and Michelangelo, Mannerism took the classical ideas of proportion, balance, and beauty, and stylized them. As the Tate Gallery in London explains, “Rather than adopting the harmonious ideals associated with Raphael and Michelangelo, [Mannerists] went a step further to create highly artificial compositions which showed off their techniques and skills in manipulating compositional elements to create a sense of sophisticated elegance.” 

Unlike Leonardo da Vinci, who perfected perspective and took great care to make all elements in his works exactly proportional, Mannerists would exaggerate things like body parts (long necks or legs, e.g.) to make the painting more expressive. Mannerists experimented with more elaborate decorations to intensify emotion, and dared to include non-natural, often bold, colors. 

Alessandro Allori was the last of the more well-known Florentine painters, indirectly tied to Leonardo through a line of painting mentors. Art historians have criticized Allori’s work for their resemblance to two-dimensional statues, devoid of energetic life. Circe does hold a statuesque pose in this painting, appearing more elegant than lifelike, sitting on a brightly-colored cloth that matches the shoulder sash and belt worn by Ulysses. On the other hand, Circe’s tame lions maintain a fierceness in their eyes, showing that their spirit hasn’t died. Ulysses appears in the artificially-colored garb, listening to Mercury’s counsel. Mercury is drawn in elongated form to emphasis grace and swiftness, a Mannerist characteristic. In the background, terrified men-beasts appear to be running away to their ships.

Circe and Odysseus. Allessandro Allori, 1560

Bartholomeus Spranger (1546-1611) was a Flemish painter, sculptor, and etcher who worked in the imperial court in Prague. Despite his northern European origin, his works show a heavy influence from the Mannerist school. Mannerism exaggerates muscular structure and poses figures in tension more often than harmonious balance. The twisting, muscular nude figure of Circe before Ulysses, probably after his antidote has resisted her attempt to drug him and he is threatening to bed her, shows the dynamic tension between the couple.

Bartholomeus Spranger ‘Ulysses and Circe’ c. 1586-1587

Baroque Period

Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) was an Italian from Bologna who helped found the “Baroque” style of art. Baroque took the exaggeration of Mannerist painting even further to produce ornate and extravagant pieces meant to awe. The Roman Catholic church promoted the style as a reaction to the austere Protestant art and architecture. Cardinal Odoardo Farnese, the son of Pope Paul III (Alessandro Farnese) wished to decorate the main floor of the sumptuous Palazzo Farnese in Rome with a grand and powerful theme, hiring Annibale and his brother Agostino to decorate the structure with heroic stories of Hercules and the “loves of the gods.” Circe appears wooing Ulysses with her charms, while Mercury in his winged hat rushes to protect the hapless mortal.

Annibale Carracci sketch for Farnese Palace ‘Mercury protecting Ulysses from the charms of Circe’ (c. 1590)
Annibale Carracci’s Ulysses and Circe (c. 1590) at Farnese Palace

Giovanni Battista Trotti (1555-1612) hailed from the northern Italian city of Cremona, and mostly painted religious works. His Circe scene is in the spirit of forgiveness and redemption, as she restores the humanity of Ulysses’ men who she had turned into pigs in a tender, elegant pose.

By the way, Giovanni worked in the court of Parma with Annibale’s brother Agostino (the ones who painted in the Farnese Palace above), who found Giovanni so ill-tempered that he bestowed the nickname Il Malosso, or “Bad Bone” to him.

Giovanni Battista Trotti’s fresco of Circe returning Ulysses’ followers to human form (c. 1610)

Lorenzo Garbieri (1580-1654), from Bologna, studied under fellow Bolognese Ludovico Carracci, whose style used intense gestures in strong light /shadow contrasts to create dramatic, emotional effect. The influence on Lorenzo is clearly visible in Circe’s spotlighted, intense look. 

Lorenzo Garbieri ‘Circe’ c. 1615-1620

The Roman Angelo Caroselli (1585-1653) adapted some of his style from Caravaggio, who emphasized realistic depictions based on the observation of humans and nature, and also used dramatic lighting with adept use of chiaroscuro (the use of shading to give depth). Although I think it’s unlikely Caroselli observed the lion and leopard in his painting in real life, he shows the dramatic story of Circe with a striking perspective (although absent the sorceress herself!).

Angelo Caroselli ‘The Kingdom of Sorceress Circe’ (c. 1630)

Francesco Furini (c. 1600-1646) was another Italian Baroque painter, from Florence. He used the optical illusion of sfumato which had been developed by Leonardo da Vinci, in which areas between colors are blurred to replicate the lack of focus that happens in our vision. (It’s the sfumato technique that is the secret of Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile). The technique adds sensuality to figures, and this is easily seen in the sexually-charged portrait of Circe.

Circe by Francesco Furini (c. 1640–1649)

Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (1609-1664), of Genoa, was affectionately known in Italy as Il Grechettoand France as Le Benédette. His special interests and talents appeared to be common markets or rural scenes with animals. In religious themes, he often chose Noah and his animal-filled ark as subjects. It’s no wonder that Circe and her link with wild beasts caught hold of his imagination. The cow in the first painting, in fact, appears to nearly steal the spotlight from the elaborately draped Circe.

Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione ‘Circe’ 1650

Circe takes more of center stage in this painting by Castiglione, although the vibrant detail of the peacock rivals her beauty.

Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione ‘Circe’ 1651

The Flemish painter Wilhelm Schubert van Ehrenberg (c. 1630-1676) had a fairly short active career that focused mostly on elaborate architecture. He highlights the imaginary royal extravagance of Circe’s palace. The dancing figures and menagerie of animals are simply foils to add more grandness to the structure.                                             

Wilhelm Schubert van Ehrenberg’s Ulysses at the Palace of Circe (1667)

Neapolitan Luca Giordano (1634-1705) favored classical figures for his works. He gained the nickname Luca fa presto, or “Luca paints quickly” for his quick style. 

The Roman poet Ovid left an enduring legacy in Western literature and culture with his epic Metamorphoses, or “Transformations.” The long poetic work on myth and history has inspired other artists through the centuries. 

In the Metamorphoses, we get the story of Picus from Roman mythology, a son of Saturn and the first king of Latium. He had a reputation for his handsome looks which attracted nymphs, naiads…and Circe. Rejected by Picus, as he was devoted to his nymph wife Canens, Circe took revenge by turning him into a woodpecker (the animal that he used to divine the future). Picus appears to already be spouting his wings as he gestures in defiance, while Circe casts her spell with an anguished, hurt look on her face.  

Luca Giordano (1634-1705) ‘Picus and Circa’ n.d.
Circe and Picus. Les Metamorphoses D’Ovide  (1677)

The “Sun King,” Louis XIV, presided over Le Grand Siècle(The Great Century), and in 1682 moved his royal Court to his Palace of Versailles to awe, entertain, and control his nobility. The gardens alone contain 221 sculptures, many from mythical stories, including this statue of Circe.

Laurent Magnier Circe in Versailles (c. 1685)

Dutch artist Eglon van der Neer (1635-1703) rarely took on mythological figures, instead focusing on historical scenes and portraits, including work as a court painter for Spanish King Charles II of Spain. Nonetheless, his visual tale of Circe erupting in a jealous rage over a nymph rival is stunning. Despite the evil intent to turn Scylla into a monster who will become the scourge of Mediterranean sailors, her fair skin and soft face is beautifully lit in a dramatic, arching gesture. The surrounding monsters add the menacing significance.

“The unsightly, but good-natured sea god Glaucus was in love with Scylla, but this was unrequited. To win her over, he sought the help of the sorceress Circe. This was a mistake, for Circe was herself in love with him. In a fit of rage, she changed poor Scylla into a monster. Van der Neer set the story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in sinister surroundings. Gesturing theatrically, the sorceress performs her vengeful deed.” From the website Europeana.eu. 

Eglon van der Neer ‘Circe Punishes Glaucus by Transforming Scylla into a Monster,’ 1695
Detail of Eglon van der Neer ‘Circe Punishes Glaucus by Transforming Scylla into a Monster,’ 1695

Enlightenment and Neo-Classical Period

Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, the British national hero, kept a lovely mistress of Circe-like beauty, model and actress Emma Hamilton. Her talents inspired many artists, including the most fashionable contemporary portraitist, George Romney (1734-1802). George met Emma in 1782, and was so struck by her that she became his muse. He painted over 60 portraits of her, at least two in the role of Circe. It seems fitting that this woman with such power over the most influential men of her day should play The Sorceress. 

By the way, George Romney is kin to American businessmen and politicians George W. and Mitt Romney. It’s unknown whether those Republican stalwarts were under Circe’s spell.

George Romney’s c. 1782 portrait of Emma Hamilton as Circe. It was used to illustrate numerous books, including Wuthering Heights.
George Romney ‘Lady Hamilton as Circe, the sorceress of the Odyssey’ 1782

Austrian Hubert Maurer (1738-1818) came from the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna (famous for rejecting Adolph Hitler twice for his unfitness as a painter). An official, pensioned painter for the state, Maurer’s depiction of Circe seems quite conservative to me, fitting for the proud and self-certain “Age of Enlightenment”. The authority and power of Ulysses overwhelms the kneeling and terrified Circe. A helpless maiden peers from behind a curtain, uncertain of Ulysses intention.

Hubert Maurer ‘Circe and Odysseus’ 1785

The Swiss Neoclassical painter Maria Anna Angelika Kauffmann (1741-1807) painted successfully in London and Rome. She represents a strong feminine artist, being one of only two female founding members of the Royal Academy in London. A child prodigy, she acquired German, Italian, French, and English languages, and was painting serious portraits by age 12. Her charming personality won her many admirers, and the charm comes through strongly in her tender picture of Circe enticing Ulysses. 

She considered herself a “history painter,” the aim to represent human actions using themes from history, mythology, literature, and scripture. The interaction between the two soon-to-be lovers is filled with a romantic tension. Both lean in to each other, heads tilted forward and gazes fixed on each other’s eyes. Circe’s right hand tenderly rests on Odysseus’ bare leg, and his relaxed left hand hovers close. Yet, Circe clings to her magic wand, and Odysseus raises his right hand in unsure hesitation.

Angelica Kauffman’s painting of Circe enticing Odysseus (1786)

The next work is by or in the style of illustrator John Flaxman (1755-1826). The drawing from an illustrated work of the Odyssey of Homer shows Ulysses at the Table of Circe. The caption reads, “Why sits Ulysses silent & apart. Some hoard of grief close harbour’d at his heart.” The work shows very fine line drawing, with elegantly-curved furniture that draws as much attention as the characters. Circe and Ulysses don’t appear affectionate or passionate; they could be engaged in a serious dinner conversation. The preciseness reflects the spirit of enlightenment.

Ulysses at the Table of Circe 1805 John Flaxman 1755-1826

Romantic period poet John Keats (England, 1795-1821) tragically died of tuberculosis at the young age of 25, but managed to produce works of sensual imagery that became very popular. 

In the long narrative poem Endymion, Keats uses the story of a shepherd-prince to retell many of the ancient myths. This is the poem that begins, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever…” In the poem, Endymion helps to free the sea god Glaucus, who had been imprisoned on the sea floor for a thousand years by Circe. Keats also describes the agony of another of Circe’s victims who had been turned into an elephant in the following passage:

Endymion by John Keats 1818

    “I sue not for my happy crown again;

   I sue not for my phalanx on the plain;

   I sue not for my lone, my widowed wife;

   I sue not for my ruddy drops of life,

   My children fair, my lovely girls and boys;

   I will forget them; I will pass these joys,

   Ask nought so heavenward; so too-too high;

   Only I pray, as fairest boon, to die;

   To be delivered from this cumbrous flesh,

   From this gross, detestable, filthy mesh,

   And merely given to the cold, bleak air.

   Have mercy, goddess! Circe, feel my prayer!”

Charles-Alphonse-Achille Guméry (1827-1871) was a French realist sculpture based in Paris. His stately, powerful Circe watches over the south façade of the Cour Carrée in the Louvre palace.

Charles Gumery – Circe (1860) Displayed at the Louvre

Realism & The Age of Photography

Louis Daguerre brought about the miracle of capturing light to preserve a moment of “truth” in time in 1839. The initial impetus was to start recording people and history to preserve things as they were in reality. It did not take long for photography to become an art to portray a different kind of truth than the real world.

British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) went beyond celebrity portraits to experiment with photographs of legendary and heroic themes. She preferred a style of soft focus on closely cropped subjects for more artistic effect, though she suffered criticism by naysayers who could only see ‘slovenly’ work. She captures a mesmerizing gaze from her 1865 Circe.

Julia Margaret Cameron ‘Circe’ 1865

The updated realism of Belgian painter Charles Hermans’ (1839-1924) creates one of my favorite images that merges Circe with the opulence and decadence of the 19thcentury “fin de siècle.” In her vibrant red evening gown, staring at the observer with dark, satisfied eyes, Circe has subdued the banquet-goers dressed in the finest evening attire. There are no allegories of wild animals, other than the piggish manners exhibited by the drugged victim.

Charles Hermans ‘Circe the Temptress’ (1881)

The Pre-Raphaelites

In a year of revolutions, 1848, when Europe’s old order and old blood were being overthrown and spilled, three young revolutionaries in Britain sought to upend the art world. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais formed the “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood” seeking an honesty and simplicity in art that they imagined existed before the exaggerations of Raphael. The “Brotherhood” would dissolve after four short years, but many dedicated, talented artists were attracted to their ideas, such as Edward Burne-Jones, John Collier, and John William Waterhouse.

The purity of their ambitions was reflected in both their technique and content. They used pure color over a white-painted canvas, which gave the colors vibrancy that can be felt wherever their works are displayed, like the Tate Gallery in London. They were meticulous in reproducing technically-skilled details, filled with intellectual symbology. Most importantly, they recalled subjects of a noble, meaningful past, reviving local legends, myths, and great literary figures and stories. The femme fatale story of Circe was a perfect fit for their philosophy. 

Edward Burne-Jones fills his striking witch Circe painting with many relevant symbols. The sun flowers represent her father, Helios. The ships in the background represent unwitting sailor-victims of the past, such as Ulysses and his men, while the big cats represent lovers to come. The green plant in the top right probably is an enchanter’s nightshade used to make potions. Circe is bent over pouring a potion in a posture one might see in an old hag, but her eternally-youthful beauty betrays her immortal status. Edward’s work inspired founding Pre-Raphaelite Rosetti to write an accompanying poem.

The Wine of Circe (1863-69) Edward Burne-Jones

For “The Wine of Circe” By Edward Burne-Jones

DUSK-HAIRED and gold-robed o’er the golden wine

She stoops, wherein, distilled of death and shame,

Sink the black drops; while, lit with fragrant flame,

Round her spread board the golden sunflowers shine.

Doth Helios here with Hecaté combine

(O Circe, thou their votaress!) to proclaim

For these thy guests all rapture in Love’s name,

Till pitiless Night give Day the countersign?

Lords of their hour, they come. And by her knee

Those cowering beasts, their equals heretofore,

Wait; who with them in new equality

To-night shall echo back the sea’s dull roar

With a vain wail from passion’s tide-strown shore

Where the disheveled seaweed hates the sea.

—  Dante Gabriel Rossetti Poems 1870

Art.com site tells us, “Artist John Collier’s style offers beautiful, eloquent expressions of Pre-Raphaelite painting achieved through meticulously descriptive detail, rich color and fine, nearly invisible brushstrokes…. A true perfectionist, Collier (1850 -1934) was committed to the utmost accuracy in his paintings of historical and mythological scenarios.”

Juxtaposing a perfectly executed, fiercely docile tiger and playful leopard (remember Caroselli’s unrealistic pair of big cats) with the glowing, smooth skin of a reclining nude Circe captures her beauty and danger. 

John Collier ‘Circe’ (1885)

John Melhuish Strudwick (1849-1937) worked as a studio assistant to Edward Burne-Jones. Strudwick harkened back to medieval and Renaissance styles with meticulous attention to detail…the grotto of Circe’s lair as she pours a monster-making potion into the reflective pool display his wonderful talent. The radiant Scylla draped in white bathing gown contrasts with the earth-colored dress of Circe. The two faces are turned in opposite directions, emphasizing a struggle between innocence and evil intention–the poison of jealousy. 

Liverpool Museum website informs us “George Holt [a wealthy patron] discovered Strudwick’s work in the collection of rival Liverpool shipowner William Imrie at the Holmstead. In 1890 he decided he wanted his own painting by the artist and purchased this subject, taken from Greek mythology as retold by the Roman author Ovid. The enchantress Circe, jealous of the maid Scylla with whom her favourite Glaucus has fallen in love, poisons the water in which Scylla is about to bathe, turning her into a sea monster. Following his acquisition of this work, in what was his most individualistic act of art patronage, Holt went on to commission three more paintings directly from Strudwick.” Unfortunately, the rival shipowners subsequently withdrew their support of Strudwick, causing his relatively short career to collapse, leaving Strudwick with perhaps the same bitterness felt by Circe.

John Melhuish Strudwick ‘Circe and Scylla’ (1886) 

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917) was a true powerhouse of the Pre-Raphaelites and a master at bringing tragic women to life. He took his subjects from Arthurian legends, Shakespeare, and Greco-Roman mythology. 

The enchanting witch of Magic Circle was an earlier work of Waterhouse’s. It may or may not be Circe, but is drawn in the spirit of Circe. The Tate Gallery’s online description of this work states, 

“Miracles, magic and the power of prophecy are common themes in Waterhouse’s art. More specifically, the notion of woman as enchantress is one that recurs in images such as Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysees (1891, Oldham Art Gallery) and Hylas and the Nymphs (1896, Manchester City Art Gallery). His oeuvre also includes a number of middle-eastern subjects, in which he drew on the work of contemporary artists such as J.F Lewis (1805-76) and Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), rather than on actual experience. This is one of Waterhouse’s earlier works, and reflects his fascination with the exotic.

The woman in this picture appears to be a witch or priestess, endowed with magic powers, possibly the power of prophecy. Her dress and general appearance is highly eclectic, and is derived from several sources: she has the swarthy complexion of a woman of middle-eastern origin; her hairstyle is like that of an early Anglo-Saxon; her dress is decorated with Persian or Greek warriors. In her left hand she holds a crescent-shaped sickle, linking her with the moon and Hecate. With the wand in her right hand she draws a protective magic circle round her. Outside the circle the landscape is bare and barren; a group of rooks or ravens and a frog – all symbols of evil and associated with witchcraft – are excluded. But within its confines are flowers and the woman herself, objects of beauty.

The meaning of the picture is unclear, but its mystery and exoticism struck a chord with contemporary observers. When the picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1886 the critic for the Magazine of Art wrote ‘Mr Waterhouse, in The Magic Circle, is still at his best – original in conception and pictorial in his results’ (quoted in Anthony Hobson, J.W. Waterhouse, p.37).”

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917). Magic Circle. 1886

In “Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses,” Waterhouse shows Circe holding up her magic wand and potion looking dominant and confident…perhaps overconfident. We can see Ulysses in the mirror ready to draw his sword, oblivious to her poisoned incense and wine. The ingredients of her potion scatter on the floor, surrounding a frog which is symbolic of magic. The poor sailors who have been turned into swine grovel around Circe’s solid gold throne, which reminds us of her heavenly status as Helios’ daughter.

J. W. Waterhouse ‘Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses’ (1891)

Invidiosa means “jealous,” giving us the clue that this is the story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in which Circe poisons the sea to turn her rival for Glaucus, the stunning nymph Scylla, into a monster. She appears to be standing on some hideous sea creature as she pours the glowing green poison. Her chin-down, dark expression show that the poison of jealousy pours out from her inner being. Comparing the intensity of emotion here to Strudwick’s scene from above highlights the creative and captivating style of Waterhouse that has made him so popular among the Pre-Raphaelites.

Circe Invidiosa *oil on canvas *180.7 x 87.4 cm *1892

In the pre-Great War nationalist fervor of 1910, Waterhouse donated a work for an art fund in support of Great Britain’s conflict in southern Africa, the Boer War. Although it is labeled “Destiny,” and not consciously related to Circe, the influence of elements of her story can be easily seen. While most interpret the painting as a woman toasting the ships reflected in the mirror as they sail off to settle the conflict, the thoughtful gaze, bowl of liquid, and open book of  some special knowledge all remind one of the Circe story.

J. W. Waterhouse ‘Destiny’ 1910

Approximately 20 years after painting Jealous Circe, Waterhouse returned again to the subject. Circe is more pensive and beautifully wistful. She’s surrounded by her book of spells and potions either used, spilt, or ready for her next victim. Her glowing auburn hair reflects her sun-father heritage and matches the warm red tone of her draped gown. The leopard conjures up her power over animals, and the loom in the background is also associated with Circe. It’s no doubt that this Sorceress is Circe for the fact that the artist wrote her name on the back of the canvas as well.

J. W. Waterhouse ‘The Sorceress’ Sketch of Circe c. 1911-1914
Detail of the finished J. W. Waterhouse ‘The Sorceress’ c. 1911-1914

The Turn of the 19thCentury

British realist artist Wright Barker (1864-1941) was an excellent draftsman of domesticated animals, including dogs, fine horses, and cattle. From his studio in Yorkshire, he mostly painted hunting scenes and pets. The foray into mythology was rare for him, and his skill in the shiny, silky furs of the lions, tigers, and wolves nearly outshines the seductive Circe. She stands at the entrance of her luxurious palace, boldly opening her body with open arms and bare breast. She holds a lyre, an uncommon feature of most Circe depictions; although, in Madeline Miller’s version of the myth, Hermes visits her with a lyre stolen from Apollo, and she finds a fondness for music.

Wright Barker’s 1889 painting of Circe as musician
Engraving of Circe c. 1886

Marius Vasselon (1841-1924) was a French painter whose portfolio included landscapes, still lifes, nudes and portraits. The legend of Circe with her beasts is barely alluded to here…the story serves more as an opportunity to admire this nude beauty.

Marius Vasselon’s Circé (1888)

Émile Lévy (1826-1890) had a distinguished career as a neo-classicist, winning the Grand Prix de Rome in 1854 and France’s Legion of Honor in 1867. He was known for his mastery of pastels with intimate, luxurious, and voluptuous interiors and beautiful skin tones.  Unfortunately I can find only this black and white print from an electronic copy of Salon Illustré by Henry Fouquier, 1888.

Émile Lévy’s ‘Circé’ (1889)

British painter Arthur Hacker (1858-1919) painted in a series of various styles described as “Pre-Raphaelite , symbolist, poetic-rustic, and simple genre themes,” which he learned at the Royal Academy. He enhanced his work via travels in Spain, Gibraltar, and North Africa, which I like to think influenced this exotic depiction of the alluring Circe beguiling the Greeks. 

Arthur Hacker British, 1858 – 1919 Circe, 1893

Sir Edgar Bertram Mackennal (1863-1931) was an Australian sculptor and medalist who famously designed the coinage of George V. He went to Paris in 1891 and scored his first big success with his full-length model of Circe, which earned a “mention” at the Old Salon and created a bit of buzz. She strikes an elegant yet foreboding pose. Her outstretched hands show her conjuring up a spell, perhaps to control the natural elements to block the sun, which was one of her powers.

Circe Edgar Bertram MacKennal1893

Jean Jules Badin (1843 – 1919) was a French genre, history, and portrait painter. His rendition of Circe indeed appears as a portrait of a real-life person. Only the wand in the right hand and gold cup, perhaps filled with potion, give away her magic identity.

Jean Jules Badin ‘Circe’ 1895

Briton Rivière (1840-1920) was another British artist who specialized in animal paintings. He uses the story of Circe to exhibit his skills in reproducing a herd of pink, grey, and black swine. Circe in her matching pink dress, her wand beside her, seems to enjoy the company of the attentive pigs.

Briton Rivière ‘Circe and Her Swine’ (1896)

Symbolist and Decadent Movements

Symbolism shared with the Pre-Raphaelites a tendency to look back to literary figures, especially non-historical fantasy or myths. The bizarre works of Edgar Allan Poe, for example, were often a source for their visual themes. Leaders of the movement published a “Symbolist Manifesto” in 1886. They rejected mundane, realist paintings of peasants in fields or idyllic natural settings, instead seeking to convey absolute truths in metaphorical terms. The goal was to “clothe the Ideal in a perceptible form” whose “goal was not in itself, but whose sole purpose was to express the Ideal.” A letter from a Symbolist to a friend summarized the purpose as “to depict not the thing but the effect it produces.” (Conway Morris, Roderick “The Elusive Symbolist movement” – International Herald Tribune, March 17, 2007)

A separate but related movement in late 19thcentury European art was the Decadent. Decadence referred to the disgust with self and the world, skepticism with humanity, and a reaction that delighted in perversion and the superiority of human creativity over the natural world. Followers of the two movements drew distinctions from each other, but in fact their styles often overlapped. Themes of mysticism, other worldliness, the sense of one’s mortality, and the dangerous power of sex that both the Symbolists and Decadents pursued all made Circe’s story attractive as a subject.

The work Pornocrates by the Belgian printmaker, draftsman Félicien Rops (1833-1898) does not identify the subject as Circe, but the influence of her story can be felt in the image of a confident woman of power controlling a swine, which symbolizes the bestiality of sexual evil. The friezes of the arts upon which the controlling woman walks also links the work to the classic tale of Circe. At the time Rops created this, his best-known work, he lived in a Paris apartment with the sisters Léontine and Aurélie Duluc, both of whom were his mistress and bore children with him—a fact which informs the sexually-charged nature of this work.  

Félicien Rops Pornocrates1878

 “Lucien Levy-Dhurmer (1865-1953) was a French painter and potter. Primarily known as a potter and innovator in ceramic shapes, techniques and glazes, he participated in the revival of the decorative arts at the end of the 19th century.

After 1896 he also exhibited pastels and paintings with an individual style and approach to color that suggested his familiarity with ceramic glazes. In paint and pastels he excelled at portraits, images of the female form and landscapes.

Levy-Dhurmer was active in the Symbolism movement (ca. 1880s-1910s) and he remains the foremost master of esoteric symbolism with techniques of evanescent, diffuse and hazy textures, faces that are vague, distant or mysterious and nudes that materialized in clouds of colors.” (From the website porkopolis.org)

I cannot vouch that the first two of these three figures are all Levy-Dhurmer’s, as they were taken from unofficial sources such as Pinterest accounts that attributed them to Levy-Dhurmer. However, it’s clear that the figures are intended to be the subject of Circe. The first picture reminds me of Japanese Ukiyo e style in the way that the water, rocks, and ships are shown in the background. Those ships are probably Ulysses’ fleet, while Circe flashes her identity with an anticipatory smile and magic potion. 

Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer 1897

This next work appears to feature the same model, also with strong hints that she is representing Circe. The ships wait off of her rocky and dangerous coast, while she nestles among the sailors-turned-pigs with her potion glowing with the light of her father Helios.

Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer ‘La Magicienne Circé’ 1897

This last image attributed to Lévy-Dhurmer is simpler and darker, highlighting the symbols of Circe’s witchcraft—cats, bats, snakes, and lizards. Her face remains beautiful and calm, eyes closed as if dreaming of her desires…perhaps imagining the form into which she will transform her next victim.

Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, ‘La Sorcière’ (1897)

The French illustrator, essayist, and playwright Gustav-Adolf Mossa (1883-1971), like Lévy-Dhurmer, was a Symbolist painter. He shunned and mocked the materialism of society, and appears to express a fear of the power of women. His most prolific Symbolist period of painting was 1900-1911, during which he produced this image of Circe among her piggish would-be lovers. Her expression seems uncaring for the plight of her victims. She is surrounded, nearly buried, in the pigs, which may reveal Mossa’s anti-feminist attitude.  

Gustave Mossa ‘Circe’ (1904) 

Mossa had a fascination with femme fatale figures, and depicted female sexuality as malevolent and lethal. A year after his “Circe” he carries the theme further with the generically named “Elle,” or “She.” The woman could easily be Circe, grown in time and power, reigning as a giant nude over a pile of bloody corpses. The cat makes an obvious symbol of her sexual power, and her elaborate crown reads, in Latin, “hoc volo, sic jubeo, sit pro ratione voluntas (What I want, I order, my will is reason enough).”

Gustave Mossa ‘Elle’ 1905

Art Nouveau

Art Nouveau was a movement most popular among Western artists from 1890 to 1910. Natural forms and structures of plants and flowers influenced the entire spectrum of art, architecture, and design (which was becoming ever more important with the mass production of designable, manufactured consumer products such as furniture). 

Károly Józsa (1872 – 1929) was a Hungarian artist from Budapest. He studied in Vienna, Munich, and at the Académie Julian in Paris, working in Munich and Budapest in a variety of mediums including oil, pastel and woodcut. His stylized postcard picture of Circe shows the Art Nouveau manner which places Circe entwined in her natural elements that were a crucial part of her witchcraft.

Carl Józsa ‘Circen/Circe’ 1899

Paris-born Louis Chalon (1866-1940) exhibited large, classic-style paintings in the Salons of the Societe des Artistes Francais and illustrated many major periodicals and books. Later in life he focused more on sculpture, but was always attracted to mythological subjects, particularly femme-fleurs, or women symbolizing flowers. Chalon displayed this work in 1888.

Circe reigns gloriously in an opera stage-like setting, distant in view through a dark portal, occupied by her indolent victims. While they wallow in the dark, Circe basks in her royal sun heritage, surrounded by oriental symbols of magic and power. The lily pads on shimmering water recall her watery maternal background (her mother Perse was an Oceanid nymph). The throne appears exotic and oriental…almost of Egyptian origin.

Louis Chalon ‘Circé et ses Porcs (Circe and her pigs)’1888

It appears that Chalon’s work became very popular for reproduction. The following appeared in a 1902 work Master Paintings of the World, edited by Dupont Vicars and published by The White City Art Co., Chicago. It strangely appears in a discussion of Pompeii, in Chapter 9 “Famous Paintings by Renowned Artists. Biographical and Pictoral.”

“Circe and the Companions of Ulysses” 1902 

Daniel Meyer Alston (1881 – 1965) was born in Yorkshire, England, emigrated to Australia at age 7, but returned to study in France in 1902 on a traveling scholarship at l’Ecole des Beaux Arts and Colarossi’s. One feels the French influence in Circe as a sort of anti-Lady Liberty. She playfully dangles the empty cup of potion above the ravenous, enslaved pigs in a triumphant pose.

Daniel Meyer Alston, ‘Circe’ (1906)

Commercialized and American Art

Maxfield Parrish (1870-196) is the first American painter in this collection of Circe’s transformations. Printings of his artwork were very successful, admired for their saturated hues and neo-classical imagery. His career in America exemplifies the commercial prosperity that the industrial age had made available in art. He produced almost 900 sellable works, such as calendars, greeting cards, and magazine covers. By 1910 he was making over $100,000 per year, a tremendous sum for the time. Norman Rockwell referred to Parrish as his “idol.” 

He illustrated many story books in the early 1900s, and this scene at Circe’s palace is likely from one of those. The intense blues of the sky and sea, reflected in the shiny mirrored bowl, were a trademark of Parrish based on his use of a cobalt-based blue paint. (The color is sometimes called “Parrish blue”). The strong form of the columns, with Circe’s erect lower body transforming into a triangle from torso to pointing arm to cauldron give the scene a formality that places the story in a classic Greco-Roman setting.

Maxfield Parrish ‘Circe’s Palace’ c. 1907

A fascination with the occult and magic existed in western culture from the mid-19thcentury into the 20th, with displays of magical feats a part of circus entertainment. Circe was a natural subject to use to give more of a background story setting for the tricks. 

Circe die Zauberin 1907 Circus Poster

Frederick Stuart Church (1842-1924) was another American artist, hailing from Michigan but moving to New York in 1870. He worked profitably as an illustrator, and was known for his allegorical productions featuring animals. He promoted American art as an independent genre from European. He carefully studied his animal subjects to understand their anatomy and facial expressions, which he sometimes anthropomorphized. Thus, painting Circe with her creatures was a natural choice for him. 

This scene may be Circe practicing her skill in magically cloaking the sky from her exile on a deserted island. Her burning potion sends out spirit-shaped clouds, in twirling, dancing motions rushing over the open waters, blotting out the sun. The wind blows her fiery, flowing locks of hair and the manes of the lions. The beasts mimic her fervid gaze, full of pent-up energy ready to pounce. The bits of green moss, tinges of green in the tumultuous sea reflecting on the distant clouds, and Circe’s green dress draw the picture together and balance with the gold of the lions and tri-legged cauldron, contributing to a dream-like atmosphere.

Frederick S. Church’s ‘Circe’ (1910)

Alice Pike Barney (1857-1931) was another American artist whose works can now be seen in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C., where Alice spent most of her socially-connected life. A chance encounter with Oscar Wilde in 1882 New York convinced Alice to become an artist, against the wishes of her railway-car-baron husband. She studied art under the portraitist of Parisian high society, Carolus-Duran, for a period in 1887, and again from 1896. In her second stay in Paris, with her daughter Natalie, she opened a salon which was attended by Symbolists such as Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, who influenced her work. 

Barney illustrated a book of French poetry written by her talented daughter, using her daughter’s friends as models. Only later did she learn that the love poems were her lesbian daughter’s affections expressed to those lover-models. Though Alice promoted the liberating New Woman movement, the news of a homosexual daughter scandalized the possessive husband, who rushed to Paris to drag his family back to America.

I relate this story because I think it might reflect in Barney’s undated work of Circe with one of her pigs. Circe’s eyes look a little sad and wistful to me, desiring something that she can’t seem to obtain. The open mouth and full red lips appear to be hungry and unsatisfied. The pig’s expression is wild-eyed and fearfully engaged in the present, not in some ideal, hopeful future.

Alice Pike Barney ‘Circe’ Pastel on canvas n.d. Smithsonian

Beatrice Offor (1864-1920) was born and trained in art in England. Often recruiting her sisters as models, she specialized in esoteric portraits of young women. She came to a tragic end in 1920 after suffering a nervous breakdown, subsequently falling from a window in what was judged as an act of suicide. 

Her Circe seems playful and charming, as if playing a game with her potion. Offor renders Circe in a natural, expectant pose with lovely detail of her hands and fair face.

Beatrice Offor ‘Circe’ 1911 (c) Bruce Castle Museum (Haringey Culture, Libraries and Learning); Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Franz Stuck (1863-1928), known after 1906 as Franz Ritter von Stuck after being awarded the Order of Merit of the Bavarian Crown, was a German painter, sculptor, engraver, and architect. In the Symbolist tradition, he often worked with mythology with seductive females. Because he was also a sculptor, his female subjects fill the frames of his paintings in large sculpted poses. Psychologist-philosopher Carl Jung once remarked that Stuck’s sultry paintings “perfectly expressed” the “mixture of anxiety and lust.” 

Tilla Durieux was an Austrian actress and radio playwright who modeled for this work titled “Tilla Durieux as Circe.” Circe offers her cup with an anxious look, as if wondering whether Ulysses will take the bait. The painting turns Circe’s hair a flaming red, matching fervent red lips, adding to the anxiety-lust tension. 

Franz von Stuck, Study for ‘Tilla Durieux as Circe’ (1912)
Franz von Stuck ‘The Actress Tilla Durieux’ as Circe. Ca. 1913. Oil on wood, 60 x 68 cm.

Margaret Murray Cookesley (1844-1927) traveled from her native England throughout the Middle East to find exotic oriental subjects for her oil and water color paintings. This version of a long auburn-haired Circe with flowing green skirt looks as if she will be enticing her guests with a sensual belly dance. 

Margaret Murray-Cookesely ‘Circe Resplendens’ (1913) 

Edmond Brock (1882 – 1952), not to be confused with C. E. Brock below, was born in London to a sculptor father. He found his own talent as a portraitist, exhibiting over 50 at the Royal Academy over his career. The lavish Lady Londonderry (Edith Chaplin), a society hostess with estates in Northern Ireland and London, was Edmond’s most loyal patron. In her exclusive social club of close friends called “The Ark,” all the members chose nicknames; Lady Londonderry’s was Circe. 

She commissioned Brock in 1925 to paint her and her three youngest daughters. As a family portrait, the sting of Circe’s magic turns more softhearted. This work reflects the style and sensibility of 1920s London elite, set in an English garden with playful children. Circe has the vogue bobbed hairstyle, and her chalice appears to be more suited to a wine feast than mixed potions. Circe the mother carefully watches over her children, confident in her ability to raise them to success in the world.

Brock, Edmond; ‘Circe and the Sirens’: A Group Portrait of the Honourable Edith Chaplin (1878-1959), Marchioness of Londonderry, and Her Three Youngest Daughters, Lady Margaret Frances Anne Vane-Tempest-Stewart (1910-1966), Lady Helen Maglona Vane-Tempest-Stewart (1911-1986), and Lady Mairi Elizabeth Vane-Tempest-Stewart (1921-2009), Later Viscountess Bury; National Trust, Mount Stewart

Circe in Book Illustrations

As a figure in the Greek myths, which were popular for retelling in storybooks, we find many versions of Circe in illustrations. Advances in technology for printing cheaper, high-quality books promoted the spread of these books and opportunities for artists to engage with Circe’s charms.

Charles Edmund Brock (British, 1870- 1938) started illustrating for books at the age of 20, his talents earning the rights to illustrate famous authors including Jonathan Swift, William Thackeray, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot. Living in Cambridge, he used the abundant library resources for picture research. 

Brock had an extraordinary gift for fine line drawing. The drawing here shows excellent detail, including in the laughing onlookers as they watch Circe’s pigs perform tricks under her spell. 

Charles Edmund Brock ‘Circe’s Palace’. “Begone to Your Sty Cried the Enchantress.” Circa 1900. Signed watercolor on board. Probably produced for publication in the Classics section of the Children’s Hourseries published by Waverley Book Company in the early 1930s (Vol. 3).

Edmund Dulac (1882-1953) was born in a family of the Toulouse bourgeoisie where his father sometimes restored paintings while his uncle imported Asian works of art, including Persian and Indian miniatures, and Japanese prints. Those brightly colored, delicately inscribed works must have deeply imprinted upon his mind, for he would become a premier illustrator of Asian stories such as Tales from the Arabian Nights.  

He moved to England at the age of 22, quickly landing an illustrator contract. I’ve found four different transformations of Circe by Dulac. The first three below strongly show his influence from Japanese wood prints (known as Ukiyo e) and Persian miniatures. The last picture shows a change in style in a work published after Dulac’s death by heart attack in 1953. He had only half-finished the commission for the work, which might lead one to suspect the originality; however, the illustration is signed in the lower right.

Edmund Dulac ‘The Enchantress’ 1911
Edmund Dulac 1915
Edmund Dulac c. 1910-1932
Edmund Dulac ‘Circe The Daughter of the Sun’ (published posthumously 1954 in The Masque of Comus: The Poem by John Milton & The Airs by Henry Lawes)

Margaret Evans Price’s (1888 – 1973) name might sound more familiar in its hyphenated version in Fisher-Price Toys, co-founded by Margaret in 1930. She was an artist and children’s book illustrator, and served as the toy company’s Art Director, designing toys based on her book characters. I was unable to determine if Fisher-Price ever produced a Circe toy, although Fisher-Price became a subsidiary of Mattel, the producer of Barbie dolls…an example which you will see below. 

Circe looks quite relaxed and harmless, other than the fact that the poor fellow is halfway to a pig.

Margaret Evans Price illustration for A Child’s Book of Myths1924

Newell Convers (N. C.) Wyeth (1882 – 1945) was one of America’s most prolific illustrators, with over 3,000 paintings (including some vintage Coca Cola advertisements) and 112 illustrated books. He strove to be more realistic with his craft, but adding a melodramatic flair to compete with the photograph.

Wyeth adds drama to Circe both in her dynamic stance, and by the use of psychedelic colors.

Wyeth, N. C. ‘Circe and the Swine’ illustration for The Odyssey of Homer(1929)

Janet (1928 – 1979) and Anne Grahame Johnstone (1928 –1998) were twin British sisters famed for their delightfully delicate children’s book illustrations. One blogger comments on their enchanting depiction of Circe,

“you can see many of their influences, with hints of earlier northern European fantasy illustrators such as Kay Nielson, a touch of the stylings of Evind Earle (the man that defined the look for Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty), the pigs in the Circe illustration faintly reminiscent of the work of Maurice Wilson, but ultimately the artwork is very much the work of Anne and Janet Grahame Johnstone with their superbly orchestrated designs, bold outlines, fabulous costumes and an innate sense that allows them free reign to make each artwork sing with a vigor and life all its own.”

Peter Richardson, blogger, http://cloud-109.blogspot.com/2012/02/tales-of-greeks-and-trojans.html
Anne and Janet Grahame Johnstone, illustrators in Tales of the Greeks and Trojans1963

Modernism

The horrors of The Great War, followed by its sequel in 1939, accelerated art on a deconstructive path that some had already started on (such as in the Decadent Movement). Not really an organized movement in the style of past artistic innovations, its defining character has been simply rejection of an “obsolete” past.

Circe has not escaped the deconstruction of the modernists. The Tate Gallery in London has at least two examples of a modern Circe. The museum describes this first work:

“This sculpture is titled after Circe, the sorceress of Greek mythology who turned Odysseus’s men into pigs. The misshapen head looks like a joint of meat with wires and nails protruding from it. It is also unmistakeably reminiscent of a brutalised phallus and may reflect Butler’s attitude towards women and his perception of their power over men.”

Reg Butler ‘Circe Head’ 1952-3

According to the Tate Gallery explanation, “Circe transformed her enemies into animals by giving them magic potions, a fact which reflects Beuys’s interest in shamanism. This work, which is a collage of paper on board, also shows the artist’s interest in the Irish writer James Joyce. Joyce’s epic novel ‘Ulysses’, contains an episode in the second part called ‘Circe’, and from 1958 to 1961 Beuys wrote two new chapters for ‘Ulysses’. Joyce is believed by some critics to be the addressee of the group of drawings Beuys assembled called ‘The secret block for a secret person in Ireland’.

Joseph Beuys 1921–1986 ‘Badezimmer der Circe’ (Bathroom of Circe) Watercolour and gold paint on paper and board

The Tate also holds the somewhat less abstract, but modern nonetheless, work of Dame Elisabeth Jean Frink (1930 – 1993). The Times obituary of Frink said the three essential themes of her work were “the nature of Man; the ‘horseness’ of horses; and the divine in human form.”

The last seems to be the purpose for her Circe. Circe’s humanity is emphasized by the brown mud soiling her feet and dress, while her upper torso remains pure in the clouded blue sky. Her stern, determined gaze embodies her power over the geometric pigs.

Dame Elisabeth Frink (1930-1993) Circe 1973-4

Circe in Contemporary Pop Culture

Susan Seddon Boulet (1941 – 1997) was a San Francisco Bay Area artist, born in Brazil to English parents who had emigrated from South Africa. Her early life religious inclination to become a nun had her concerned father send her to finishing school in Switzerland, where she learned her artistic craft. Earlier works were rainbow-hued medieval and fantasy figures, evolving later into anthropomorphic images of animals, shamans, and goddesses. Her obituary reads, “Working primarily in French oil pastels, inks and occasionally pencil, she developed a distinctive personal style characterized by the use of color applied in layers from which dream-like forms emerged. She drew her inspiration from a wide variety of sources: mythology and poetry, Jungian psychology and worldwide spiritual traditions, as well as a deep love of animal and the natural world. There is a fairy tale quality to her work, a sentimental reacalling of childhood dreams of fairies and castles and magic.”

Circe, then, was a natural subject for Susan. Here we see Circe emerging from an ethereal background of purples, greens, and blues, with her brown skin concealing the bright gold of sun origin. 

Susan Seddon Boulet ‘Untitled (Circe) 1975

Circe maintains her status in pop culture through cartoons, comics, and fantasy drawings. Here she appears in her grand palace with her stately lions, in a Spanish-adapted version of The Odyssey.

Martin Sauri, illustrator in “The Odyssey” adapted by Pérez Navarro 1982

Romain de Tirtoff, known as Erté (1892 – 1990) was a French artist/designer born in Russia. His designs covered fashion, jewelry, costumes and set designs for film, and interior decoration. His style tends to follow the Art Deco period, with strong graphic lines and integrated geometric shapes intended to portray luxury, glamor, and progress.

This late work of Circe radiates her sun-born glory, with the red flowing drapery cutting a beautiful pattern ornamentally framed. 

Erte (Romain de Tirtoff) ‘Circe’ (1985)

Roger Payne (born 1934) is a British-born illustrator whose work includes a cult following in Gay pornography, where he at first anonymously contributed drawings while doing more regular work for illustrated books. 

Here his reproduction of Circe features the sprawled-out male in the center of the frame. In a reverse of more common pictures, the sleeping figure exposes more flesh than the stern-looking goddess.

Roger Payne ‘Circe changing the sailors into pigs’ illustration from The Odyssey by Peter Oliver and Homer (1992).

Boris Vallejo (born 1941) is a Peruvian painter of fantasy and erotica. His visually-striking work covers many science fiction and fantasy books and calendars.

His Circe has the muscles of a female bodybuilder, ready to do battle with her array of beastly powers.

Boris Vallejo 1992 (Illustration for the cover of Ladies: Retold Tales of Goddesses and Heroines)

Boris is married to fantasy and wildlife artist Julie Bell and they often collaborate on projects. They have worked on many paintings together for advertising campaigns such as Nike, Inc., Coca-Cola, and Toyota.

Here, they’ve produced a phantasmagorical scene that capitalizes on Julie’s wonderful wildlife work. It may be hard to imagine a rhinoceros on Circe’s Greek island, but they make a striking visual image with male sexual imagery to boot.

Boris Vallejo & Julie Bell ‘In Circe’s World’ n.d.

Alan Lee (born 1947) is a celebrated book illustrator and movie conceptual designer for fantasy genres such as Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. He often works in watercolors which give his scenes a soft, dreamy feel. This work was from his illustrations for The Wanderings of Odysseus, as told by Rosemary Sutcliffe. 

Circe appears nearly elven here, recalling the intricate, airy patterns of jewelry worn in Lothlórien in the Lord of the Rings series.  

Circe, The Bewitching Queen of Aeaea by Alan Lee 1995.
Alan Lee illustration in The Wanderings of Odysseus, 1995

“Luis Rodríguez Vigil (b. 1963) is a Spanish painter. His work has been described as creating discomfort or an uneasiness difficult to define. Vigil creates a kind of aberrant symbolism that is sensual and hallucinatory as if he is presenting episodes of a strange carnival world.” (from Porkokpolis.com)

Luis Rodríguez Vigil ‘La Maga Circe [the Witch Circe] ‘(1996), oil on canvas
The artist Luis Rodríguez Vigil in front of his painting

The website Artrenewal.org, which promotes realism and a sense of aesthetics to be appreciated by common folk, features artist Eric Armusik, who has produced at least two sensual, ultra-realistic views of Circe. 

According to the website, “Eric Armusik’s, (b. 1973) classical figurative paintings reflect the spirit and passionate storytelling of the old masters and are a declaration of the dramatic power of representational art. The origin of his inspiration does not lie in academia, but rather his childhood, surrounded by the vivid paintings he saw in Gothic cathedrals as a child. This influence not only inspired his love of religious subject matter but ignited a passion for the painted narrative.

Armusik’s large figurative oil paintings are painted on smooth wooden or aluminum panels in the manner of 17th C. Baroque artists like Caravaggio. His paintings are rendered in a deep chiaroscuro where light illuminates the figure and heightens the complex emotional range of his characters. The dramatic work, which often focuses on unrequited love, betrayal or acts of heroic martyrdom, focuses primarily on the drama and power of the captured moment. It is Armusik’s unique gift of amplifying his character’s struggles through a soulful gaze, a sensual gesture or the implied gasp before death that is both extremely powerful and visually poetic.”

Eric Armusik ‘Circe’ (2015) Oil on birch
Eric Armusik ‘Circe’ (2015-6) Oil on birch

Michael John Angel (born 1946) is another artist featured on the artrenewal.org site. He describes himself as an English Classical Realist and 21stCentury Realist artist. Born in England, Angel emigrated to Canada in 1961, where he has advocated the production and teaching of traditional fine art techniques. He confesses a passion for myth and allegory.

His Circe is very modern and serious, relaxing in a cushioned wicker chair with a book, probably of spells. It’s difficult to tell, but there may be an allusion to her wand leaning on the wall in the background.

Michael John Angel ‘Circe’ n.d.

Stephen Kirk Richards (b. 1952) is an American 21st Century Realist painter and writer.

Kirk (Stephen Kirk) Richards (born 1952) ‘Circe’

As promised, I found a Circe version of Mattel’s Barbie doll, although it appears to be modified to be resold online. The advertisement reads, “CIRCE GREEK GODDESS OF MAGIC & SORCERY~ BARBIE DOLL OOAK MYTHOLOGY. Clothing is non removeable as well as all accessories. She has had a repaint done to her face and her hair has been redone and restyled with an adhesive. She has bright red hair and wears a black gown with gold trim.”

Circe Barbie doll for sale online

Circe also appears in the comic and cartoon worlds as one of the nemeses of D. C. Comics’ Wonder Woman, and as a piggish cute villain in Disney’s Duck Tales.

Disney Duck TalesCirce (a Villain)

Circe appears in other media besides painting and sculpture. She has inspired several choreographers, including Martha Graham (1894 – 1991). This photo reflects what must be a fascinating performance.

Here you can see a modernist film/dance titled “Circe’s Palace.” The music is by Graham Jane, lyrics by T. S. Eliot, and video shot by Norman McLaren.

Here’s another dance performance in Italian language. It’s entitled Il Canto Di Circe– The Dance Musical – Sophya Baccini, published on Sophya’s YouTube channel.

Phil Sayers is a transvestite artist who performs feminine masquerade in photographic images often referencing art historical sources.

Here Sayer’s mimics J. W. Waterhouse’s image of Circe offering the cup to Odysseus. 

Phil Sayers “Circe (After J W Waterhouse)” 

The BBC series Atlantis also features a Circe played by Lucy Cohu.

Circe portrayed by Lucy Cohu in BBC’s Atlantis, 2013

Poet Linda Pastan, widely recognized in the United States where she has been Maryland’s Poet Laureate, imagined this interesting lament of Circe.

Circe – Linda Pastan (1932- )

I will always be the other woman.

I disappear

for a time

like the moon in daylight,

then rise at night all mother-of-pearl

so that a man’s upturned face,

watching,

will have reflected on it

the milk of longing.

And though he may leave, memory

will perfect me.

One day the light

may fall in a certain way

on Penelope’s hair,

and he will pause wildly…

but when she turns,

it will only be his wife, to whom

white sheets simply mean laundry—

even Nausikaä

in her silly braids

thought more washing linen

than of him,

preferring Odysseus

clean and oiled

to that briny,

unkempt lion

I would choose.

Let Dido and her kind

leap from cliffs

for love.

My men will moan and dream of me

for years…

desire and need become the same animal

in the silken

dark.

To be the other woman

is to be a season

that is always about to end,

when the air is flowered

with jasmine and peach,

and the weather day after day

is flawless,

and the forecast

is hurricane.

Miscellaneous Sources

Finally, several fruitful sources to find images of Circe are on Porkopolis, Deviantart.com, and various art dealer sites.

Curator of the site Porkopolis Daniel E. Schultz says it is “a single-minded bestiary. It presents an enswined miscellany of circumstance and viewpoint, fact and opinion, all contemplating that much-maligned mammal, the pig.” The site contains many images of the pig transformations in the Circe story.

DeviantArt is a community site for artists to express their work. A search of the word “Circe” on this site returns almost 20,000 hits! This is the modern popularity of Circe. The remaining images are just a few selections of interesting Circe transformations from Deviantart.com.

A few of the artists explain their work. This first image comes with the following background information:

“Tammy Mae Moon (who also goes by MoonSpiral) is a self-taught US artist and full-time wife and mother.

She has always been fascinated with history, myth, culture and our different perceptions of beauty. Her work explores our ideas of the feminine psyche and its connection to the natural world….”

She explains her ‘Circe Offering Her Potion’ as such:

“Another Klimt inspired mythological piece. This is of the great witch/goddess of the Odyssey, Circe. In this I imagined the moment Odysseus comes and accuses Circe of turning his men into swine. Even with pigs at her feet I envision her being coy “How dare you accuse me of such a thing, here would you like a drink…”

I always found it interesting that Odysseus stayed for three years with Circe even though he was in such a hurry to get back home to his wife. Maybe Circe was correct in trying to change him into a pig!”

Tammy Mae Moon (MoonSpiral) ‘Circe Offering Her Potion’ pastel on Wallis sanded paper, 2010
Gonzalo Ordóñez Arias ‘Circe’ 2007
Simon Eckert 2008
Coral McBride ‘Circe’ 2009
Claudia Melim 2009
Emily Balivet “Circe and Her Vial of Dragon’s Blood” A print of the original painting by Emily Balivet, 2009
王家大娘 2010
Alessandro ‘Circe Poisoning the Sea’ 2010 Male Italy
Petar Meseldzija c. 2010
Nona Hyytinen 2011
Nachomolina ‘Circe’ (Deviantart.com) 2009-2019
Katerina-Art ‘Circe’ c. 2011-2019
Loston Wallace ‘Circe Color Print’ 2012 US Male
Debra Jayne ‘Circe, Greek Mythological Goddess’ Poster 
Anthony Jean ‘Le Palais de Circé’ 2013
Luke Hillestad ‘Circe’ 2014
Soni Alcorn-Hender ‘Circe’ 2014 Canada
Thalia Took ‘Kirke’ (2012-2019)
Luis Royo (1954- ) Illustration of Circe in the temple of the underground fortress of Warduke, a powerful human warrior, a protagonist of one of the sagas of Dungeons & Dragons.
Brad Reuben Kunkle ‘Circe and her Pets’ 
Kevin Nichols ‘Circe-4’ (Deviantart.com) c. 2017
Michele Padgett (Deviantart.com)
Egregore Design 2018
Scott Christian Sava (Deviantart.com) 2019
Oskar Vega (Rasbearyart) 2012
Mitzi Sato-Wiuff (aruarian-dancer) 2011

E.D (Zarudei) 2008 Female Artist from Chile
Deri (Deridolls) 2011 Female artist from Portugal
Laura Jean (Kedemel) c. 2014 Female from Australia
Hanie Mohd (2101) from a “Trading Card” project
Timothy Lim (Timothi-Ellim) (2013)
Faye (Daremoinaimachi) (2014) Female Spain
Phil Long (Ageaus) ‘Circe’s Hospitality’ (2013)
Anqila ‘The Witch of Aeaea’ (2010) Female US

2 comments on “Circe’s Transformations: Art Images of the Greek Sorceress Through The Ages”

  1. Really wonderful collection of Circe-inspired art. Planning a Course combining discussion of Madeline Miller’s book with the art of Circe. Have found about 60 percent of what is here, but your commentary on the periods and the artists is so helpful. Thanks!

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