The Story in Paintings: Nausicaä, boy meets girl and more

Michele Desubleo (circa 1601–1676), Odysseus and Nausicaa (c 1654), oil on canvas, 217 x 270 cm, Museo di Capodimento, Naples. Wikimedia Commons.

The Odyssey is one of the oldest and most influential stories, told in epic poetry, in the West. It tells of the ten years of adventures experienced by the Greek Odysseus (known to the Romans as Ulysses) on his way home after the fall of Troy. In its 12,110 lines of poetry, Odysseus first has to escape after seven years held captive by Calypso on her island of Ogygia, which he does on a raft. This is wrecked in a storm inflicted by Poseidon, and Odysseus swims ashore on the island of the Phaeacians, variously named Scheria or Phaeacia.


Odysseus swam into a river estuary, where he hauled himself out of the water, exhausted and naked. He made his way into a wood, where he fell asleep in heaped leaves (the end of Book 5).

The following morning Nausicaä “of the beautiful robes”, daughter of Alcinous the king of the Phaeacians and his queen Arete, travelled in a mule wagon with her handmaids to wash those robes in a river. Her mother gave her a chest of food, wine in a goat-skin flask, and soft olive oil in a flask of gold for Nausicaä and her handmaids to use after bathing themselves.

When they arrived at the washing place on the river, they unhitched the mules and let them graze, then washed the garments in the river, and spread them out on the seashore to dry. They then bathed themselves, anointed themselves with oil, and had lunch. Afterwards they played ball with one another. When they were about to harness the mules back up to the wagon, Nausicaä threw the ball at one of her handmaids, who did not catch it, and it fell into deep water.

At that point Odysseus woke up, heard the sound of the women’s voices, covered himself with a leafy branch, and emerged from the wood. The handmaids scattered, but Nausicaä stayed where she was. Odysseus, still salt-crusted from his shipwreck, begged for Nausicaä’s help. She agreed to take him back with her to the palace, and told her handmaids to come back and assist him. Odysseus went and washed the salt off his body, then anointed himself with oil, and dressed in clothes which Nausicaä had provided. They gave him food and drink, which he consumed ravenously.

Once he had eaten his fill, the party took the mule wagon back to the city (the end of Book 6). Eventually King Alcinous and the Phaeacians agree to help Odysseus return home, and deliver him to a hidden harbour on Ithaca.


As with many of the best stories, this is layered like an onion, and can be seen, and told, at any of the levels.

At its simplest and most basic, it is the age-old story of boy meets girl, although in this case any love appears platonic and unexpressed, at times Nausicaä being more motherly than romantic towards Odysseus. That can be extended to become naked boy meets the daughter of the king, with the somewhat unconventional mode of introduction, and the symbolism of Odysseus’ nakedness, and of Nausicaä’s washing of clothes.

In a more literal sense, this naturally extends to the story of a shipwrecked and distressed boy who meets the daughter of a king with influence, and eventually into the summary of Homer’s story, as a shipwrecked and distressed traveller who meets and becomes close to the daughter of a king who has influence and can solve his problems.

Considering the scope for pictorial cues and clues to the narrative, Odysseus’ nakedness and weathered appearance are sound links to previous events, and there are ample items (the mule wagon, grazing mules, river estuary, drying clothes, ball game) to tie into the written text.

The painter’s greatest problems rest in pictorial cues and clues to future events. As this is a change in fortune for Odysseus, from bad to much better, some visual indications of that better future will strengthen the peripeteia. It is this which is likely to prove the greatest challenge to painters trying to depict the story of Odysseus and Nausicaä.

One solution might be to paint the scene of Odysseus first emerging, naked, from the wood, to plead with Nausicaä. This would be set at the river estuary, and on the beach there would be the remains of Odysseus’ wrecked raft. In the far distance might be the city, with its shipyards and vessels under construction, to provides clues as to the nature of Odysseus’ future.

The Paintings

Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830–1896), Nausicaa (c 1879), oil on canvas, 145 x 67 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Frederic, Lord Leighton’s (1830–1896) Nausicaä (c 1879) is structurally the simplest of the paintings which I have been able to find, and is essentially a full-length portrait of the princess, apparently standing in a doorway. It lacks any cues or clues to link it to any point in the text narrative, so without a pendant or other paintings in a series, it is not narrative. Its text equivalent is “pretty girl looking wistful”, which is an isolated event, not a story.

Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein (1751–1829), Odysseus and Nausicaa (1819), oil on canvas, 232 × 177 cm, Großherzogliches Schloss Eutin, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein’s (1751–1829) Odysseus and Nausicaä (1819) shows the two figures of Odysseus and Nausicaä apparently indoors. Although they each are making hand and body gestures which imply interactions between them, both their mouths are closed and their faces neutral. The painting lacks any cues or clues to link it to any point in the text narrative, and again, without the support of another painting cannot form a narrative. Its text equivalent is “boy and pretty girl interact in some ill-defined way”.

Jean Veber (1864–1928), Ulysses and Nausicaa (1888), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Jean Veber’s (1864–1928) Ulysses and Nausicaä (1888) may also be quite a simple painting, but it has much greater narrative content. It follows Homer’s text quite faithfully, in showing the initial moment of contact between Odysseus and Nausicaä (at the right), with her handmaids scurrying off in shock. Veber also places a ball between the pair, as a further cue to the text.

Odysseus’ nakedness and facial expression link well to his shipwreck and predicament, but the painting does not contain any forward references which might mark this moment as being a change in Odysseus’ fortune. It therefore does not contain the complete peripeteia.

Salvator Rosa (1615–1673), Odysseus and Nausicaa (1663-4), oil on canvas, 194.5 x 144 cm, The Hermitage, St Petersburg, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

Salvator Rosa’s (1615–1673) Odysseus and Nausicaä (1663-4) shows a moment slightly further on in the story, where Odysseus is being given garments to cover his nakedness, although one of the handmaids still seems sufficiently shocked at his appearance that she needs to be comforted by another.

The sky appears better suited to unsettled weather, and probably towards dusk, although that does not match the text narrative. Rosa does not provide any forward links to complete the peripeteia.

William McGregor Paxton (1869–1941), Nausicaa (before 1937), oil on canvas, 86.4 × 96.5 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

William McGregor Paxton’s (1869–1941) Nausicaä (before 1937) picks the moment of Odysseus’ first appearance, just before the handmaids scattered in fright. Although the text does not state that they were nude at this stage, when playing ball after lunch, Paxton startles us with eight females and one male nude packed into a single canvas, a feat of which even William Etty might have been proud. He includes the drying clothes and the ball, with good cues and clues to the past and the text, but lacks a forward reference.

Michele Desubleo (circa 1601–1676), Odysseus and Nausicaa (c 1654), oil on canvas, 217 x 270 cm, Museo di Capodimento, Naples. Wikimedia Commons.

Michele Desubleo’s (circa 1601–1676) Odysseus and Nausicaä (c 1654) gives an even fuller account of the text. Odysseus is shown naked, clutching the leafy branch strategically to his crotch with his left hand. His right arm is held out, apparently pleading his case to the regal princess, sat in her beautiful robes, and in the process of handing him an item of clothing.

Nausicaä holds in her left hand a wooden bat, following the apocryphal story that the ball game which they were playing was an early form of real tennis, for which the ball is towards the lower edge of the painting. Behind her is the canopy of the wagon, and there is washing drying towards the top of the canvas, and in the middle distance. There is also a pile of neatly folded washing at Nausicaä’s feet. The far distance shows a gentle Mediterranean coastline.

This provides a full set of references to the past, and the text narrative, but there is still nothing to indicate the future improvement in Odysseus’ fortune, leaving the peripeteia incomplete.

Lovis Corinth (1858–1925), Odysseus and Nausicaa (1918), lithograph, 46.5 x 56.3 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Lovis Corinth’s (1858–1925) lithograph Odysseus and Nausicaä (1918) mixes the moments of the text narrative: Odysseus is shown at the right, still naked and clearly neither bathed nor oiled. He pleads with Nausicaä in the centre, who has one handmaid with her. Behind them is the mule wagon, mules in harness, with further handmaids on board.

I cannot make out any evidence of their washing clothes, nor playing ball, and the handmaids look surprised but have not run away in shock at Odysseus’ appearance. He does, though, show a town in the far background – insufficient to confirm the improvement in Odysseus’ fortunes, but getting closer.

Joachim von Sandrart (1606–1688), Odysseus and Nausicaa (c 1630-88), oil on canvas, 104 x 168.5 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Wikimedia Commons.

Joachim von Sandrart’s (1606–1688) Odysseus and Nausicaä (c 1630-88) elaborates the scene of Odysseus pleading with Nausicaä further. He is naked apart from the leafy branch, on bended knee, his facial expression and body language very clear. She, complete with beautiful robes, is reaching for some clothes to hand to him. One of her handmaids is just about to pass him a large bowl of fruit.

Unfortunately there are also some ornaments and puzzles, of which the most prominent is a small dog by Nausicaä’s right foot. But behind Odysseus, lurking in the shade, is another naked male wearing a garland of flowers on his head; he does not appear to match any character from the text narrative.

Von Sandrart is the first who may have completed the peripeteia: in the background is a building which may be a temple of Poseidon, is the first place in the city that Odysseus visits, in order to make peace with Poseidon, for his future sea journeys. And watching from the heavens is Athena, who has been intervening to try to help Odysseus.

(I should also point out that von Sandrart was also a pioneering author, who provided early accounts of the lives and work of many European artists.)

Valentin Alexandrovich Serov (1865–1911) made at least three works of Odysseus and Nausicaä in and around 1910, which share a similar approach and pictorial content.

Valentin Alexandrovich Serov (1865–1911), Odysseus and Nausicaa (study) (1910), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.
Valentin Alexandrovich Serov (1865–1911), Odysseus and Nausicaa (1910), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.
Valentin Alexandrovich Serov (1865–1911), Odysseus and Nausicaa (1910), gouache on cardboard, 83.5 × 101.5 cm, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Wikimedia Commons.

They appear to show the end of this section of the story, with Nausicaä driving her mule wagon back along the beach, her handmaids behind it, and a fully-clothed Odysseus following on behind them. This unfortunately loses most of the references to the shipwreck and Odysseus’ predicament, but does not provide any to the future either.

Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678) The Meeting of Odysseus and Nausicaa (c 1630-40), oil on canvas, 117.5 x 194 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (on loan from the Broere Charitable Foundation). Wikimedia Commons.

Jacob Jordaens’ (1593–1678) The Meeting of Odysseus and Nausicaä (c 1630-40) apparently connects with a tapestry cycle showing the life of Odysseus which was designed by Jordaens at that time. It is a sophisticated re-casting of the original story in contemporary times, and repays careful study.

Odysseus has just emerged from the wood at the right, is naked, and crouches, his hands held together whilst he pleads his case with Nausicaä. Her party is substantial, with an ornate carriage of state drawn by a pair of fine horses, and what appears to be a second carriage with handmaids, behind the figure of Nausicaä complete with her beautiful robes. A total of 13 handmaids are shown.

Apart from Odysseus’ nakedness, there is little to link back to the previous parts of the story. Although one of the handmaids is shown wringing washing out, that activity and playing ball have been all but lost. There are also no references to the future, to complete the peripeteia.

Pieter Lastman (1583–1633), Odysseus and Nausicaa (1619), oil, 92 × 117 cm, Alte Pinakothek, Munich. Wikimedia Commons.

Pieter Lastman’s (1583–1633) Odysseus and Nausicaä (1619) is a slightly earlier painting which may have influenced Jordaens. It too re-casts the story into more contemporary times, but preserves more references to the original text. Odysseus is naked, save for his self-adhesive leafy branch, and is clearly pleading his case with Nausicaä. She stands alone, magisterial and rather more matronly than others have envisaged.

In front of Odysseus is a spread fit for a princess plus, complete with an ornate chest. Although the wagon is more rustic in construction, it is drawn by a white horse. The handmaids on the wagon, who are loading baskets of washing onto it, have facial expressions and body language which show fright if not panic and terror. In the distance another two handmaids are seen carrying another basket of washing to the wagon.

Lastman has, though, lost the ball, and gained another lapdog, which appears as scared of Odysseus as the handmaids. His references to the past are limited – Odysseus is certainly not salt-caked or even grubby – and there appear to be none to the future.

Friedrich Preller the Elder (1804–1878), Odysseus and Nausicaa (c 1864), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Collection Graf Raczynski, National Museum, Poznan, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

Friedrich Preller the Elder’s (1804–1878) Odysseus and Nausicaä (c 1864) is an expansive landscape which is unfortunately not available at higher resolution.

The naked Odysseus is just in the process of coming out from behind a bush, towards the right. Nausicaä stands as if in a spotlight in the centre of the canvas. Her handmaids are seen still dealing with the washing (left), in alarm (behind her), or preparing the mule wagon (background). I think that I can also see a coastal city in the far background, which provides limited reference to future events.

Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750–1819), Classical Landscape – Ulysses Imploring the Assistance of Nausicaa (1790), oil on canvas, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes’ (1750–1819) Classical Landscape – Ulysses Imploring the Assistance of Nausicaä (1790) is not only a glorious (imagined) landscape, but also comes very close to being a complete account of the story.

Odysseus, wearing only a nappy/diaper of leafy branches, has just stepped out from the trees at the right, and is pleading his case with Nausicaä, who stands in sunlight slightly to the left of centre. Behind her are two mules by a chariot-like carriage. One handmaid is still down by the estuary washing clothes, but the others are huddled in hiding below a small cliff above the beach. Only the ball play appears to be missing.

Further along the coast, shown at the left edge of the canvas, is a city which has a prominent pharos-like tower, a reference to the Phaeacians’ sea-going skills and Odysseus’ future travels. Although subtle, this is a good link to the future, and completes the peripeteia.


As I wrote in my analysis above, depicting much of this story is not difficult for an experienced narrative painter. Most of the paintings shown above make little or no attempt to show complete peripeteia, which we must assume was the artists’ choice given the difficulty of incorporating references to Odysseus’ improved fortunes.

Only Joachim von Sandrart and Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes have accomplished this difficult task, by different means. I find it interesting that they were both, in some way, academics and theoreticians as well as being practising painters: von Sandrart’s writings are still used today for their early accounts of painting in Europe, and Valenciennes was a professor of perspective whose 1800 book on landscape painting was a major influence throughout the nineteenth century (and still worth reading today).

This is not to say that the other paintings are inferior in any way: telling stories in text or images does not have to conform to rules, although in general those principles improve prospects of success. All these paintings are fine works of art, and each tells its own story in its own way.