OIL PAINTING: Ulysses and the Sirens, 1909
Draper's vivid presentation of Ulysses and the Sirens, although painted in the Edwardian era, is nevertheless a classic Victorian image of female predatory sexuality whose origins can be traced back to Etty's sensational depiction of the theme in 1837, a work widely condemned for its combination of voluptuousness and morbidity. Sirens enjoyed a renewed popularity in the late nineteenth century following the publication of Jane Harrison's writings on Homer's Odyssey in 1882 and 1887. The subject was dramatically treated in 1891 by Waterhouse, who had cast his sirens as birds, in contrast to Draper's nubile mermaid. Draper himself had long been fascinated by the idea of the female sea- creature, and precedents for this painting can be found in earlier works of his featuring ichthyoidal hybrids, notably The Sea Maiden (1894), The Foam Spirit (1897) and A Deep Sea Idyll (1902). Ulysses and the Sirens is based on the passage in the Odyssey which describes how, during his return from the Trojan wars, Ulysses was forewarned of the sirens by Circe and took the precaution of having his mariners' ears blocked with beeswax and himself lashed to the mast of his ship to avoid being lured onto rocks by the sirens' melodic song. The theme of manly self- control, emphasized by the brawny physiques and steely expressions of the crew, is played off against the idea of female sexual danger epitomized by the pale glistening bodies of the agile girls who cling seductively to the side of the boat. By painting two of the sirens as young women (devoid of the customary wings, claw or tail), Draper would appear to suggest that the destructive allure of these sea-monsters is in fact a property of "ordinary" women.