Briton Rivière - Circe and the Friends of Ulysses

by Sarah Baur


Briton Rivière (1840-1920), a Briton with French roots, was known for his animal painting, in which he saw, among other things, a way to escape the confining city life and associated social obligations. In some of his works, he devoted himself to human protagonists in combination with flocks of animals, either with a biblical or mythological background. Homer's Circe myth provided the prelude to this. Circe and the Friends of Ulysses is the first history painting in Rivière's oeuvre and was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1871.


It shows a young Circe - daughter of the sun god Helios - in a simple white robe and with long blond hair loosely tied in a plait. She is best known for a story in Homer's Odyssey: Odysseus' odysseys one day take him and his companions to the shores of Circe's island of Aiaia, where they fall victim to the goddess' magic and are turned into pigs. Only Odysseus himself is spared, as it is only later that he meets Circe and befriends her.As is well known, tastes differ. The discourse about this work, however, brought about the ruin of two men: the artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler and his critic John Ruskin. How this came about, later. Let us first take a look at the work. You can see the night lit up by fireworks in Cremorne Gardens, an amusement park in London, on the banks of the River Thames. Fireworks were regularly set off there in the evenings for the amusement of visitors. Whistler himself lived about 20 blocks away and painted the park several times.

Relaxed, she sits on the floor of a kind of marble veranda in a walled courtyard surrounded by plants. With her head raised, Circe overlooks a herd of pigs gathered in front of her from the architectural elevation all the way to the right side of the landscape-format painting. While the pigs in the background lie sleepily in the straw, those near Circe are hysterically aroused, as if attracted by a magnetic field and thus progressively set in motion. They literally jostle for the best spot and eagerly poke their heads over the step towards Circe. One of them has even got hold of the hem of the dress. The wide-eyed stares of the front animals seem insane, those of the back ones as if in a trance. One of the pigs sticks its head up, imitating Circe's posture, almost as if yowling in admiration. The latter does not let herself be put off by the frolicking of the enraged animals, but enjoys, as it were, the unrestricted attention and the knowledge that control over the animals is in her power. One instrument of this power, namely the magic wand, lies ready to hand behind her. From the dark bushes in the upper right corner of the picture, Circe, whose wide white robe corresponds to the lightest part of the painting, diagonally forms the luminous counterpart. The bright harmonious colouring conveys an idyllic naturalness that fits in with the rural design.


In Circe and the Friends of Ulysses it is evident that Rivière knew how to give animals a certain humanity. Especially in relation to the Homeric text, the suggestion of the human mind possessed by these particular pigs was essential. The artist spared no effort to render the representation of the pigs in a particularly realistic and detailed manner. He had stalls built in the garden of his then residence in Kent and kept three pigs there, which he described in an interview for the Strand Magazine as "remarkably good sitters", "very easy to manage" and "quite sociable". While the pigs were allowed to model for him in Kent, the figure of Circe herself was created in his studio in London.


Although the pigs are compositionally at the centre of the depiction, their own unrestricted attention involuntarily draws the eye to Circe herself. The painting style also emphasises Circe's presence. While the detailed elaboration of Circe, the pigs surrounding her closely and the frieze of figures in the wall are rendered with care in a realistic manner, Rivière has only sketched the animals and the surroundings further away from her. The flat brushwork in the background also contrasts with the precise rendering of Circe and the pigs in the foreground, where even the individual bristles are clearly visible. This draws the viewer's focus all the more on Circe.


Rivière chose for his illustration of the myth the scene after Circe has completed the transformation of the companions and has just fed them. This can be inferred from the almost empty bowl in the right foreground, in which only a few grains remain and which is already partly covered with straw by the animals' hustle and bustle. Rivière visibly emphasises Circe's mystical power. The hysteria that her mere presence arouses among the pigs suggests that there must be more behind the seemingly simple young woman. Unlike much of the art that has been devoted to Circe, depicting her as a femme fatale of imposing divinity, Rivière has staged her here in a novel way, extremely natural and without overt sexual allure. Any female bodily forms are concealed by a dense enveloping garment. Due to her averted posture, she also does not make contact with the viewer. Instead of a seductive Greek goddess, we see a young swineherdess.


The painting was already considered a breakthrough during his lifetime, putting Rivière on a par with the most respected artists of the time. Contemporary criticism was therefore generally positive. Although a few critics stated that the herd of pigs was not necessarily a very handsome motif, as was stated in an article from the Art Journal of 1878, at the same time the same article described the artistic elaboration of the animals as an outstanding feature. Another critic described it as one of the most humorous paintings he had seen in a long time.


In the reviews, the mythological and Homeric background seemed of little concern. Here, the artistic refinement and the humorous aspect of the depiction of the pigs in the painting were in the foreground, leaving the relationship of the animals to Circe unnoticed. There is no doubt that the painterly execution of the pigs is of unmistakable quality, but it is precisely the originality of the staging of this myth that stands out as a special characteristic. Rivière chose a particularly unusual illustration of the Homeric material with his rustic, natural depiction of genre-like character. His work combined rural idyll and ancient epic and offered a welcome contrast to modernisation and industrialisation.


Briton Rivière - Circe and the Friends of Ulysses

Oil on canvas, 1871, oil on canvas, 68.5 x 130 cm, private collection


Further reading:

DAFFORNE, James: British Artists. Briton Rivère, in: The Art Journal 1878, Vol. 4, p. 34

HALL, Edith: The Return of Ulysses. A Cultural History of Homer's Odyssey, London /.

New York, 2012

HOW, Harry: Illustrated Interviews. XLVI. Mr. Briton Riviere, R.A., in: The Strand.

Magazine, vol. 11, London, 1896.

MARDALL, Poppy: Briton Riviere (1840-1920) and the unfixed body, in: The British Art

Journal, vol. 8, no. 1, London, 2007, pp. 57-62.