Delightfully Deadly: Sirens in paintings

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Ulysses and the Sirens (1891), oil on canvas, 100.6 x 201.7 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. Wikimedia Commons.

In the first article of this pair looking at bad boys and girls in mythological paintings, I showed a few of the many paintings of satyrs from their early popularity in the Renaissance onwards. Today I look at paintings of sirens, bad girls whose beautiful voices lured sailors to their deaths, so that the women could eat them.

Although the sirens attained fame in Homer’s Odyssey, they have been described and depicted outside that story, their origins predating Homer and the fall of Troy. They are variously described as inhabiting islands in the Mediterranean, typically those with treacherous coasts on which ships became wrecked. Their bodies were composites of (beautiful) women and birds, normally the top half being human, and the lower half including the legs those of a bird. As Odysseus almost found to his cost, they watch for approaching vessels, then fly out to greet them. The sirens make alluring music, a combination of vocal and instrumental, which enchants the sailors, causing their vessel to founder on the rocks. The sirens then eat the sailors.

Prior to 1800, sirens had not been a popular motif in paintings, and where they had been shown, they were represented as naked women, a bit like mermaids, rather than being composites of women and birds.

(c) Manchester City Galleries; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
William Etty (1787–1849), The Sirens and Ulysses (c 1837), oil on canvas, 297 x 442.5 cm, Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester, England. Wikimedia Commons.

William Etty’s The Sirens and Ulysses from about 1837 is one the pioneering accounts in paint of the story from the Odyssey. His three naked sirens are all woman, one playing a lyre, and doing their best to draw the sailors from Odysseus’ ship to a shore on which lie the remains of earlier victims.

Edward Poynter (1836–1919), The Siren (c 1864), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Edward Poynter’s portrait of The Siren from about 1864 is non-narrative, and doesn’t deface the woman’s body with anything birdlike.

Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901), Sirens (1875), tempera on canvas, 46 × 31 cm, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Wikimedia Commons.

Arnold Böcklin takes an unusual approach of almost dereferencing Odysseus in this painting of Sirens from 1875 – although there is an approaching vessel which could be his – and making the sirens fill his canvas.

The sirens shown are very human down to the waist, below which they resemble birds. One sits facing us, clearly in full voice, and very alluring in looks. The other, her back towards us, appears to be playing a flute-like instrument, and looks rather obese, to the point of almost being comical, her right breast laid upon a flat-topped rock. At their feet are three human skulls and other bones to indicate their graver intentions.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), The Sirens (1882), watercolor and gouache, brown ink, and black chalk on cream wove paper, 32.8 x 20.9 cm, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum (Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop), Cambridge, MA. Courtesy of Harvard Art Museums.

Gustave Moreau’s The Sirens (1882) shows them as beautiful figures in a static scene, with a saturnine setting sun. There is, though, a lone sail on the horizon, which doesn’t seem to have attracted their attention yet. Their lower legs turn into the writhing coils of sea serpents, but the beach isn’t littered with human remains, nor does Moreau give them wings or musical instruments.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), The Sirens (c 1885), oil on canvas, 89 x 118 cm, Musée National Gustave-Moreau, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Moreau’s later group portrait of The Sirens (c 1885) is a more complete account, with Odysseus sailing past, but its three figures are clearly all woman and zero bird.

Hans Thoma (1839–1924), Eight Dancing Women with Bird Bodies (1886), oil on panel, 38 × 58.5 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

The following year, Hans Thoma painted his Eight Dancing Women with Bird Bodies (1886), which surely shows an expanded group of sirens. In another painting showing the sirens trying to lure a passing ship, Thoma paints very similar figures, suggesting that these are also intended to be sirens.

It wasn’t until the closing years of the nineteenth century that this story was painted in full, initially by John William Waterhouse, who shows fine details derived from Homer’s account. Circe had helpfully advised Odysseus/Ulysses that he would have to sail past the sirens, two to five creatures who lured men to their death with their singing. In preparation, Odysseus got his sailors to plug their ears with beeswax before they reached the sirens, so that they could not hear their song, and to bind him to the mast. He gave them strict instructions that under no circumstances, no matter what he said at the time, were they to loosen his bonds, as he would be listening to the sirens’ song.

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Ulysses and the Sirens (1891), oil on canvas, 100.6 x 201.7 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. Wikimedia Commons.

Waterhouse’s depiction is quite close to the Homeric account, although he has provided a total of seven sirens, very appropriately shown as a large eagle-like bird of prey with the head and neck of a beautiful young woman. He has added bandage wrappings around the head of each sailor to make it clear that their ears are stopped from hearing sound. This is a good example of a visual artifice which makes the cue to the text much clearer, even though it is not what is literally described in that text.

Waterhouse submitted this to the Royal Academy for exhibition in 1891, from where it was bought, on the advice of Herkomer, for the public collection of the National Gallery of Victoria at Melbourne, Australia.

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), The Siren (1900), oil on canvas, 81 x 53 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Almost a decade later, Waterhouse painted this non-narrative portrait of The Siren (1900).

Henrietta Rae (1859–1928), The Sirens (1903), oil on canvas, 114.3 × 254 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

The Sirens (1903) marked Henrietta Rae’s return to painting narrative works featuring classical nudes. Odysseus’ ship is in the distance, as the three beautiful sirens use their aulos (the same instrument as Marsyas) and lyre to lure its occupants. This was shown at the Saint Louis Exhibition in 1904, where it sold to a collector from Philadelphia.

Edward Poynter (1836–1919), Cave of the Storm Nymphs (1903), oil on canvas, 145.9 × 110.4 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

In the same year, Edward Poynter’s Cave of the Storm Nymphs shows a related story probably drawn from Homer’s Odyssey, book 13, of naiads living in a sea cave as ‘Wreckers’, who lured ships onto rocks in order to steal their precious cargos. This made them sirens without the distasteful habit of cannibalism.

Since then, sirens have remained popular with artists, although references to them have become steadily more obscure.

Georg Janny (1864–1935), Sirens Bathing by the Sea (1922), gouache on cardboard, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Georg Janny’s fantasy painting of Sirens Bathing by the Sea from 1922 is throughly other-worldly, and there’s no trace of their bird legs.

Paul Nash (1892–1946), Nest of the Siren (1930), oil on canvas, 77 x 51.2 cm, HM Treasury, London, England. The Athenaeum.

Most cryptic of all is Paul Nash’s Surrealist Nest of the Siren (1930), which brings together the incongruous and hardly refers to Homer’s story. The painting is framed by brightly-painted walls with pillared decorations, perhaps ornate wainscot panelling. In the middle of these is what might be a painting, but also seems to be a three-dimensional plant trough containing sinuous shrubs. In the middle of those is a small nest, like an acorn cup.

Standing in front of this is a structure resembling a weather-vane, mounted on a turned wooden shaft. At the weather end of the vane is the faceless figure of a siren; the leeward end appears purely decorative. Three red rods appear to have detached themselves from the walling, two protruding from the plant trough, the third resting on the floor.

Homer isn’t the only literary reference to sirens, which also appear in the less well-known second part of Goethe’s play Faust.

Margret Hofheinz-Döring (1910–1994), With the Sirens (1962), pastel, 34 x 25 cm, Galerie Brigitte Mauch Göppingen. Image by Peter Mauch, courtesy of Margret Hofheinz-Döring/ Galerie Brigitte Mauch Göppingen, via Wikimedia Commons.

Margret Hofheinz-Döring is one of the few artists who has painted from this second part. With the Sirens from 1962 is a pastel painting which shows the sirens among rocky inlets of the Aegean Sea, a sub-scene which concludes the second act.

Late mythology suggests an unpleasant end for the sirens, which parallels the flaying of Marsyas: Hera/Juno challenged the sirens to enter a singing contest against the Muses. When the latter won, the penalty they exacted of the sirens was to have all their feathers plucked out to make crowns with. As a result of that disgrace, the sirens turned white, fell into the sea, and formed the islands which include modern Souda, on the north-west coast of Crete in the Mediterranean.

I leave you to ponder why satyrs were popular in painting from the Renaissance onwards, but have become rare in motifs over the last 150 years. In contrast, sirens had hardly been painted at all until the early nineteenth century, and have been most popular since about 1890. Could this be the result of more recent fascination with the femme fatale?