Daughter of Helios and Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft, the enchantress Circe was notorious in Greek mythology for her knowledge of herbs and potions. The story is recounted by Homer in the Odyssey (Book X): Odysseus and his companions came to the island retreat of the cruel sorceress on their journey home from the Trojan War. It was Circe’s way with travelers to offert them food laced with a magic potion that transformed them into swine. Forewarned by Hermes, Odysseus ate an herbal antidote that protected him against the fate that would befall his comrades. At sword-point, the Greek hero forced Circe to restore the pig-men to their former state. In the visual arts, Circe typically appears with her attributes of a cup and wand or the staff with which she transforms her enemies into animals. The present painting, which, on the basis of style, dates to Bloemaert's maturity, appears to be among the earliest depictions of the enchantress in Dutch painting. Unlike most later representations of the sorceress, which are almost always multi-figure compositions, Bloemaert concentrates exclusively on the isolated yet alluring figure, who is intended to be admired for her exquisite beauty.
We are grateful to Marcel Roethlisberger for endorsing the attribution to Abraham Bloemaert on the basis of photographs. Dr. Roethlisberger dates the work to between 1625 and 1628, when the artist was around sixty (loc. cit.). At this time, Bloemaert was painting several explorations of female and male half-length figures, often as allegories such as Liberality or Avarice, or simply as Arcadian shepherdesses. Seen in profile, the woman conforms to a type that the artist favored, and which can be seen in several drawings of female heads as well as paintings such as the circa 1610 Samaritan Woman, the 1620 Pomona, the 1626 Chariclea and the late Apollo and Pan. Particularly admirable is Bloemaert's sophisticated use of colors, which Roethlisberger considers to be of 'an utmost delicacy’, concluding that 'this painting sums up the harmonious mastery of Bloemaert’s art of the 1620s’ (loc. cit.).