Homer’s Odyssey in paintings: 3 Return to Ithaca

Lovis Corinth (1858–1925), Ulysses Fighting the Beggar (1903), oil on canvas, 83 × 108 cm, National Gallery in Prague, The Czech Republic. Wikimedia Commons.

In the previous article, Odysseus was just about to complete the last leg of his ten-year journey from the Trojan War back to his kingdom of Ithaca, and his wife Penelope.

Claude Lorrain (1604/1605–1682), The Embarkation of Ulysses (1646), oil, dimensions not known, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Claude Lorrain’s Embarkation of Ulysses (1646) is one of his later paintings with a port theme, also known as Odysseus Departs from the Land of the Phaeacians, showing Odysseus’ departure at dusk.

Edward Poynter (1836–1919), Cave of the Storm Nymphs (1903), oil on canvas, 145.9 × 110.4 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Edward Poynter’s Cave of the Storm Nymphs shows a story drawn from book 13 of the Odyssey, of naiads living in a sea cave as ‘Wreckers’, who lured ships onto rocks in order to steal their precious cargos. This made them sirens without the distasteful habit of cannibalism.

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Penelope and the Suitors (1912), oil on canvas, 129.8 x 188 cm, Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums, Aberdeen, Scotland. Wikimedia Commons.

Over the years of Odysseus’ absence from his wife Penelope and their son Telemachus, she had attracted the attentions of many suitors, as shown in John William Waterhouse’s Penelope and the Suitors (1912). They took over her court, living off her kingdom, raping a dozen of her maids, and rose to number over a hundred by the time that Odysseus returned to Ithaca.

Penelope was driven to resort to devious tactics to keep them at bay. The most celebrated was her promise that she could only consider her suitors once she had completed weaving the shroud for Laertes, the father of Odysseus who had sailed with Jason as one of the Argonauts. Although the suitors saw her weaving intently by day, she then unravelled her work each night.

Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797), Penelope Unravelling her Web by Lamp-light (1785), oil on canvas, 101.6 x 127 cm, The Getty Center, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

Joseph Wright of Derby’s Penelope Unravelling her Web by Lamp-light (1785) shows her watching over her sick child, while Odysseus’ statue watches her carefully unravelling her day’s work.

The Phaeacians delivered Odysseus to a hidden harbour on Ithaca, while he was fast asleep. It took Athena herself to confirm that he wasn’t on yet another distant land, but home at last. The goddess then hid the treasure the Phaeacians had given, and disguised him as a beggar so that he could assess the situation in his kingdom before revealing himself as its long-lost king.

Lovis Corinth (1858–1925), Ulysses Fighting the Beggar (1903), oil on canvas, 83 × 108 cm, National Gallery in Prague, The Czech Republic. Wikimedia Commons.

Lovis Corinth’s Ulysses Fighting the Beggar (1903) depicts the arrival of a real beggar named Arnaeus or Irus, who misguidedly picks a fight with Odysseus, who promptly floors the beggar and stops short of killing him. Corinth captures the fight as Odysseus (centre) is getting the better of Irus (left of centre), with various suitors and bystanders watching. Although painted loosely, each face has its own vivid expression, ranging from amusement to apprehension.

Odysseus met his son Telemachus and secretly plotted the best way to rid Penelope of the many suitors. The hero then made his way to his palace, still disguised as a beggar, where he was ridiculed by the suitors before he tested his wife’s intentions. Once he had determined that all the suitors had to be killed, Athena prompted Penelope to get the suitors to engage in an archery competition. Odysseus, still in disguise, won that, then killed Antinous, the most obnoxious of the suitors. He went on to kill the remainder of the suitors, hanged a dozen of Penelope’s unfaithful maidservants, and finally revealed himself to Penelope.

Lovis Corinth (1858–1925), Odysseus in the Battle with the Suitors (Wall decoration for the villa Katzenbogen) (1913), media and dimensions not known, Berlinische Galerie, Berlin. Image by anagoria, via Wikimedia Commons.

Corinth’s grand Odysseus in the Battle with the Suitors was painted in 1913 as a wall decoration for the Villa Katzenbogen, and shows Odysseus slaughtering all the suitors.

It’s perhaps only appropriate that my last painting of the story of the Odyssey remains unfinished. There’s still controversy over when Gustave Moreau started work on it, but that was probably around 1852, although he doesn’t seem to have worked on it in earnest until nearer 1860. At that stage, it may have consisted of a smaller canvas, and he discontinued work on that by about 1864. He returned to it more seriously in the early 1880s, by which time the canvas had been enlarged considerably, and he finally abandoned it in around 1885.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), The Suitors (detail) (c 1852-1885, unfinished), oil on canvas, 385 × 343 cm, Musée National Gustave-Moreau, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Using drawings made by Moreau in 1860, Cooke has argued that the original work was slightly larger than shown in the detail above, although even this area changed considerably during Moreau’s later re-working. Its final state when abandoned is shown below.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), The Suitors (c 1852-1885, unfinished), oil on canvas, 385 × 343 cm, Musée National Gustave-Moreau, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

There are two prominent figures: Odysseus, who was originally holding a bow and standing proud at the top of steps on the right, and Athena, who is in mid-air in the middle of the painting, as Odysseus’ tutelary goddess. By the time Moreau had enlarged the canvas and repainted, Odysseus had become lost in the background, where he is now shown, still holding his bow, in the doorway at the back, with an owl over his head. Athena is pre-eminent.

Moreau justified this alteration (his mother was deaf, so he wrote notes to her providing invaluable explanations) by typifying Odysseus as showing ‘material and brutal force’, but Athena represented ‘wisdom, moral force’. The suitors, now filling the canvas in their suffering and death, were ‘Last Judgement figures fleeing before the divine thunderbolt’ of Athena (quotations from Cooke).

Those thirty-two paintings are my small selection from among the many thousands which tell parts of Homer’s epic story. I hope that you have enjoyed reading them.