This painting shows Penelope, a character from Homer’s epic ancient Greek poem The Odyssey. It was painted by the Swiss-Austrian artist Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807), one of the most famous European painters in the 18th century.
Why the sad face?
Penelope’s face and posture are mournful, and you can see tears in her eyes.
Her husband Odysseus, the legendary Greek king of Ithaca, had left to fight in the Trojan War. Penelope, who had just given birth to their son Telemachus, waited patiently for 20 years for his return.
After several years, many suitors began to appear, wanting to marry Penelope, but she remained faithful to her missing husband.
Weaving her story
Penelope sits at a large loom, weaving a shroud. To keep her suitors at bay, she claimed she could not marry again until she had finished weaving the funeral shroud for Odysseus’ ageing father Laertes.
Each night she carefully unravelled what she had been weaving during the day, thus never finishing the shroud and avoiding having to remarry. The loom became a symbol of Penelope’s agency and cleverness.
The shroud on the loom appears wafer-thin. By contrast, Penelope wears a garment made from heavy fabrics.
This is not what you would expect from a classical Greek figure, but these thick, gold and blue textiles reflect her status as a queen.
The heavy clothing also weighs her down visually, and she appears tied to this claustrophobic space. This is in stark contrast to the open sky in the background and her husband being lost in the open sea or in foreign lands.
This is Odysseus’ dog Argos, who was young and strong when his master left for Troy. Here he is a symbol of both Odysseus’ absence and presence. He reflects Penelope’s sadness, but like her he is holding out hope.
When Odysseus finally returns, Argos, by then weak and old, recognises him immediately, despite Odysseus wearing a disguise.
Like the dog, this bow also belongs to Odysseus.
When he returns after 20 years he does so in disguise, in order to test Penelope’s faithfulness. When required to prove his identity, he is the only one of Penelope’s suitors who can string this bow.
In this painting, the bow also elegantly points at Kauffman’s elaborate signature in the bottom left corner: ‘Angelica Kauffmann/… Roma 1764’.
Author: Alexandra Loske, Royal Pavilion Curator