Miracles, magic and the power of prophecy are common themes in Waterhouse's art. More specifically, the notion of woman as enchantress is one that recurs in images such as Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysees (1891, Oldham Art Gallery) and Hylas and the Nymphs (1896, Manchester City Art Gallery). His oeuvre also includes a number of middle-eastern subjects, in which he drew on the work of contemporary artists such as J.F Lewis (1805-76) and Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), rather than on actual experience. This is one of Waterhouse's earlier works, and reflects his fascination with the exotic.
The woman in this picture appears to be a witch or priestess, endowed with magic powers, possibly the power of prophecy. Her dress and general appearance is highly eclectic, and is derived from several sources: she has the swarthy complexion of a woman of middle-eastern origin; her hairstyle is like that of an early Anglo-Saxon; her dress is decorated with Persian or Greek warriors. In her left hand she holds a crescent-shaped sickle, linking her with the moon and Hecate. With the wand in her right hand she draws a protective magic circle round her. Outside the circle the landscape is bare and barren; a group of rooks or ravens and a frog - all symbols of evil and associated with witchcraft - are excluded. But within its confines are flowers and the woman herself, objects of beauty.
The meaning of the picture is unclear, but its mystery and exoticism struck a chord with contemporary observers. When the picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1886 the critic for the Magazine of Art wrote 'Mr Waterhouse, in The Magic Circle, is still at his best - original in conception and pictorial in his results' (quoted in Hobson, p.37).
Anthony Hobson, J.W. Waterhouse, Oxford 1989, pp.37-8, reproduced p.36.
Christopher Wood, Victorian Painting, London 1999, pp.236-242.