The larger version of The Magic Circle was a critical success at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1886, where it was considered to be one of the best pictures and was purchased for the national collection by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest. It was Waterhouse’s first exhibit after being made an Associate of the Royal Academy and was an affirmation of his increasing international acclaim.
In 1884, two years before Waterhouse painted The Magic Circle he exhibited Consulting the Oracle (Tate) a macabre work, in which a female soothsayer is interpreting the words of a severed head to a group of women gathered in a circle around her. This painting had an Orientalist setting but was painted during a period in Waterhouse’s career when he was interested in depicting scenes of classical history and domesticity. Whilst The Magic Circle presents a dramatic image of fire and sacrifice, it depicts a scene that would have been commonplace in the ancient Greek and Roman world, where sorceresses and mystics were thought to be able to appease the gods, change fortunes and bring about love unions. This witch is not necessarily evil and her incantations may just as easily be to bring about a good harvest than to cause someone ill. It is only modern interpretations of this type of image that bring associations with devil-worship.
It is tempting to speculate that the raven-haired model for The Magic Circle was the same woman who posed a year later for Mariamne in 1887 (private collection) where she was cast in the role of the wronged woman condemned to death by the jealousy of Salome and the weakness of Herod. She was probably also the model for Cleopatra (private collection) painted in 1888 for the series for depictions of Shakespearean heroines, commission by The Graphic magazine.
A later inscription on the reverse of the canvas suggests that this picture was a study for the painting at Tate Britain. However, the high level of finish and the existence of another, smaller and loosely painted picture of the same composition (Christie’s, 4 June 2009, lot 23) suggests that they were produced as versions, probably worked upon concurrently. This was often Waterhouse’s practice and he would produce several versions of a picture, one of which would be worked up as the prime version. The only picture that should probably be described as a study is the wash drawing exhibited at the Dudley Gallery in 1881 (private collection) which proves that the subject had been suggested to Waterhouse at least five years earlier than the oil paintings.
We are grateful to Peter Trippi for confirming the authenticity of the present lot.
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