Waterhouse’s Seductive Siren Estimated to Fetch £1m at Sotheby’s London

Sotheby’s Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art sale will offer paintings, drawings and watercolours by a wide selection of artists, including Pre-Raphaelites, Classical Revival and British Impressionist works. Among the highlights of the sale is John William Waterhouse’s The Siren which has an estimate of £1m - 1.5m (US$1.3m - 2m).

John William Waterhouse's The Siren

Executed in 1901, the painting tells the story between a mariner and a siren. The mariner struggles to survive after a shipwreck, clinging onto a rock in the sea. On this rock sits a beautiful young girl, whose beauty immediately captures the sailor. The girl’s abalone-shell harp and pearl hair decoration identify her as one of the sirens – ancient beguiling enchantresses of the ocean who lured mariners to their doom with their seductive song.

She appears innocent of the harm her singing has caused and continues to pluck at the strings of her harp and gaze down at the drowning sailor below, as curious of him as he is of her. Her passive expression is enigmatic and whether she will help him or harm him we cannot know but we can be sure that he is spellbound by her pale beauty and magic song.

The lower part of her legs, splashed by the spray of the sea, are magically transformed into the glistening fish scales and fins of a mermaid. Her auburn hair in the nineteenth century was a potent symbol of the femme fatale. 

Mermaids have always been a popular subject of different types of art. For instance, The Mermaid, also by Waterhouse, depicts a mermaid alone on a rocky beach combing her auburn hair and singing her fatal song. Waterhouse had made a series of oil sketches and pencil drawings which show his early illustrations of mermaids in various poses. One of these sketches was of a trio of mermaids, which is believed to have led to the creation of The Siren.

The Mermaid

Also based upon the same series of sketches, Waterhouse’s Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus, depicts two naiads (water nymphs) looking down into a dark pool at the floating head of the musician Orpheus.

Waterhouse’s Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus

The image of the siren in the current lot is very different from Waterhouse’s earlier depiction of sirens. Although he was known for depictions of women from both ancient Greek mythology and Arthurian legend, Waterhouse’s earlier works were not Pre-Raphaelite in nature. He started his career painting classical themes in the spirit of Alma-Tadema and Frederic Leighton. An example of his earlier works is Ulysses and the Sirens, executed in 1891. Sirens in the picture are half-bird-half-woman creatures attacking Ulysses’ ship which suggest violence, terror and hunger. In comparison, The Siren captures the eerie and silent tension between the seductress and her prey.

Waterhouse’s Ulysses and the Sirens

John William Waterhouse. The Siren.

Lot no.: 12
Painted in: 1901
Size: 81 by 53cm.

  • Sold on behalf of the artist by Agnew’s, London on 1 February 1901 to James Gresham of Woodheys Park in Ashton-on-Mersey, with whom it remained until his death in 1914;
  • Sold by Gresham’s executors, Christie’s, London, 12 July 1917, lot 132 and purchased by Gooden & Fox, London on behalf of William Hesketh Lever, Lord Leverhulme of The Hill, Hampstead and Thornton Manor, Merseyside;
  • Transferred to the Lady Lever Art Gallery, by whom sold Christie’s, 6 June 1958, lot 167, purchased ‘Goldschmidt’;
  • D’Offay-Couper Gallery, London by whom sold to M. Bertonati in 1970;
  • Sotheby’s, London, 26 November 1985, lot 55, where purchased by Seymour Stein

Estimate: £1,000,000 - 1,500,000

Auction details

Auction house: Sotheby’s London
Sale: Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art
Lots offered: 92
2018/7/7, 7/8|12pm - 5pm
2018/7/9, 7/10, 7/11|9am - 4:30pm
2018/712|9am - 12pm
Sale date: 2018/7/12|2pm