A song of drag-nets hauled across thwart seas
And plucked up with rent sides, and caught therein
A strange haired woman with sad singing lips,
Cold in cheek, like any stay of sea
And sweet to touch? so their men seeing her face,
And how she sighed out little Ahs! of pain,
And soft cries sobbing sideways from her mouth,
Fell in hot love, and having lain with her,
Died soon?" — Algernon Charles Swinburne, Chastelard ["which inspired Draper's 'The Sea Maiden' of 1894" — Simon Toll]

Simon Toll's excellent discussion of the role of the siren or nixie in late-Victorian paintings by Herbert Draper and others reveals complex, layered, and often contradictory meanings and emotions. In nineteenth-century Europe, these dangerous, seductive figures appeared everywhere:

Mythologies concerning nymphs and sirens occur throughout Europe, from the Russalkahs and Marmaete of Eastern and Northern Europe to the French Melusine and the German Lorelei and Nixen. In folklore and mythology, kelpies, naiads, crenae, potamids and limnads inhabited the streams and rivers that flowed into the ocean of their sisters, the sea-nymphs. Some crawled out of their watery grottoes and lived among the trees as dryads or as oreads dwelling on the mountain slopes, ready to ensnare imprudent shepherds. Paintings of nymphs and sirens were as numerous as the Nereids themselves in the annual exhibitions of the Continental salons and British Royal Academy. Artists and poets would have liked us to believe that every brook, lake, ocean cove and bathtub was inhabited by a naiad or an undine. [67]

As he points out, "The sirens (meaning 'entanglers') had initially been imagined to be creatures of awesome destructive power and dreadful allure. In the nineteenth century, which saw an influx of these enchanted women in art, they became synonymous with sexuality and seduction. . . . The sado-masochistic preoccupation with the saline vampires is rather disturbing. Women were being represented as untrustworthy, schizophrenic and treacherous, watching wide-eyed from the rocks for the next male victim to drag from the security of his boat" (67-68). Art, literary, and cultural historians have offered obvious explanations of the popularity of such female figures, one of the most obvious taking the form that blurring of gender barriers as women began, however slowly, to enter universities, professions, and, of course, the arts terrified men. Another explanation looks to sexual transmitted diseases, which proved particularly terrifying inn age before antibiotics. According to this view, "The siren is the personification of venereal disease, the whom of the sea, a sexy Nemesis to punish those who stray into her sea bed" (68). A third explanation derives male fear from sexual prudery and repression, or, in Toll's version — "It is unsurprising that the nymphs should be so popular during the century of the corset and sexual repression, as they offered freedom to the incarcerated male libido. The daughters of the ocean symbolise the alternative image of Woman from that of the petticoated china-doll, allowing themselves to become absorbed by their hunger for sexual gratification" (67).

In addition to citing Draper's works on this theme, which include Sea Maiden, Foam Sprite, Ulysses and the Sirens, Lamia, and The Kelpie, Toll mentions those by other contemporary painters, such as Edward Mathew Hale's Mermaid's Rock and Perilous Waters and Waterhouse's Siren and Ulysses and the Sirens. But Toll, who reveals the complexity of this iconography in the late-Victorian and Edwardian imagination, points to two perhaps unexpected intonations of the intensely erotic water-maid: First, some women artists painted destructive sirens, too, thus perhaps suggesting they found the image empowering more than misogynous; second, some of Draper's own intonations of this situation, such as Day and Dawnstar (127-29), both male and female figures meet destruction, for the painter here draws upon another version of the symbolic narrative in which

The sirens' promise carries a baleful price, for their kiss is laced with poison, albeit sweet venom. As the nymphs and sirens can only obtain a soul by procreating with a mortal, their seduction also leads to the loss of their immortality. Therefore intercourse with sea maidens is fatal to both the sirens and their prey. The loss of their virginity is the awakening to reality and with reality comes death. [68]

In this intonation or side of the story, it is sexuality itself, not women, that destroys; it is a Blakean fall into experience. Both male and female creatures become human, but becoming human means they experience not only intense, fully lived pleasures but also face the certainty of death.


Toll, Simon. Herbert Draper, 1863-1920: A Life Study. Woodbridge: Antique Collectors Club, 2003.

Painting Decadents

Last modified 19 November 2006