Ulysses and the Sirens

ulysses detail

One of the most popular works in the Ferens Art Gallery, it was purchased from the artist in 1910 for 600 pounds (the equivalent of 42,000 pounds at today's prices). However when it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy it received rather poor reviews. The Times newspaper was critical because it was not faithful to Homer's tale.

The legend of Ulysses

The tale of Ulysses, or Odysses as he was to the Greeks, was first recorded by Homer. One of the principal heroes of the Trojan War Ulysses adventures took him to the underworld. On his return, he visited Circe, an enchantress with the power to drive the wind. She warned him that on his journey he would pass the island where the sirens dwelled.

The sirens were mythical, female creatures who sang hypnotically at sailors to lure them onto dangerous rocks. Circe advised Ulysses to have his men's ears blocked with bees wax and to have himself bound to the mast so he might hear their song and live. Ulysses followed the enchantress' advice and we can see he has been strongly bound by his men and they sailed safely past the island.

The Sirens

The depiction of the sirens is an interesting one as Homer's account was rather vague and artists usually drew them as bird like figures with female heads. Draper, however, depicts them as mermaids and young women. We see a boat full of muscly sailors apparently terrified by three nude girls. As they climb aboard, an act of assertive sexuality, the sirens change from mermaids into women.

The theme of the nymph and the temptress became something of an obsession in Draper's work. This work was done later in Draper’s career, when he was a married man, and contrasts dramatically with an earlier work by him The Sea Maiden which shows the sailors as the aggressors.

The picture contains many contrasts; the sea and the air, the masculine and the feminine, the dark and the light, hard and soft. These contrasts are enhanced by the colours used by Draper with the sailors being dark and weather beaten, the sirens are pale and untouched by the sun like an English Edwardian lady.

The artist

Herbert Draper was born in 1863 in London. A talented child he went on to study at the Royal Academy's schools of Art and later won a travelling scholarship taking him to both Paris and Rome.

As a young man Draper was informally engaged to May Walker, and he seems to have been deeply effected when she broke off this engagement and later painted a work called 'The Promise of May'. He later met and married Ida Williams despite a brief holiday romance with Evelyn Percival Clark.

Herbert Draper enjoyed popularity as an artist in his own lifetime and we know that Draper took care to ensure the accuracy of his work by visiting the British Museum to consult contemporary artefacts. When Draper sold the work to the Ferens he wrote to say that he was pleased that "my work will not be buried in a private collection as is too often the case" .