This painting was created by the American artist, Louis Loeb (c. 1866-1909). Loeb’s mythological inspiration behind this artwork is clearly identified by his chosen title—The Siren. Traditionally, ancient Greek Sirens were said to have been monsters with the curious form of a woman’s head (and sometimes torso) fused onto the body of a bird. Rejecting such ancient descriptions, Louis Loeb and many other fellow painters chose to reinterpret Sirens as mermaids or seductive nymphs lounging on seaside shores. Whatever their shape, the defining feature of the Sirens was their bewitchingly beautiful voices. Songs performed by the Sirens proved irresistible to passing ships, luring unsuspecting and unprepared sailors to early deaths. Homer, who wrote of the Sirens in The Odyssey, described the deadly musical powers of these mythical beings:
“There is no homecoming for the man who draws near them unawares and hears the Sirens’ voices; no welcome from his wife, no little children brightening at their father’s return. For with their high clear song the Sirens bewitch him, as they sit there in a meadow piled high with the mouldering skeletons of men, whose withered skin still hangs upon their bones” (Homer, The Odyssey, book 12, approximately lines 40-50).
Such, then, is the power wielded by the woman seen in Louis Loeb’s painting. For extra effect, she seems to have an instrument beside her—perhaps a harp or a lyre—that she can use to accompany her already deadly voice. Fortunately, the Siren appears to have not caught any sailors on the particular day that the painting encapsulates. Instead, she stares out over the empty sea with a rather bored expression, waiting for her next encounter.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Odyssey by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited by D. C. H. Rieu. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.