Herbert James Draper (British, 1864-1920)

The Wrath of the Sea God

“The Wrath of the Sea God” was the second of a series of classical nautical paintings painted by Draper around the turn of the century. In 1894 he had achieved his first major public success with a painting entitled The Sea Maiden (Christie’s, 16 June 2010, lot 168), a dramatic scene set on board a fishing-boat as a sea-nymph is hauled aboard in the nets. This picture established Draper’s reputation as a painter of narratives beside the sea, and more specifically on board ships. Among the other notable examples of this theme were the Celtic Tristram and Yseult (formerly Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool and destroyed during the Blitz) painted in 1901 and the famous classical extravaganzas The Golden Fleece of 1904 (Cartwright Hall Art Gallery, Bradford) and Ulysses and the Sirens of 1909 (first version, Ferens Art Gallery in Hull; second version, Leeds City Art Gallery).

The present picture illustrates an episode from Ovid’s Odyssey as the ship commanded by Odysseus and his men on their return to Ithaca from the Trojan wars, incurs the anger of Poseidon following Odysseus’ slaying of Poseidon’s son, the cyclops Polyphemus. The men struggle against the foaming waters, grappling with the steering oar at the stern and attempting to lower the sails to prevent the ship from capsizing.

When The Wrath of the Sea God was exhibited in Glasgow in 1900, it was described as ‘an artistic triumph’ (unidentified newspaper cutting from Draper’s scrapbook) and the artist was congratulated for using thick impasto to model the figures and the shields on the bulwark of the ship. It attracted the attention of Duncan Sinclair Smith, a wealthy manufacturer of shawls in Paisley who bought the painting soon after the exhibition closed.

During his lifetime, Draper was one of the most admired painters of classic mythologies and elegant portraits. He studied at the Royal Academy in London and participated in their official expositions for most of his career. After winning the Royal Academy Gold Medal and Travelling Studentship in 1889, he traveled frequently to Rome and Paris. His painting The Lament For Icarus (which hangs at the Tate) won the highest honorĀ at the Paris Exposition in 1900.