Characters in Painted Stories: 4 The Quest

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Ulysses and the Sirens (1891), oil on canvas, 100.6 x 201.7 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. Wikimedia Commons.

In this series looking at how characters in stories are portrayed, in the context of Christopher Booker’s analysis of literary narratives into The Seven Basic Plots, I have reached the third of his plots: The Quest.

Over the last three weekends, I have looked at some of the best paintings which have told the stories of Virgil’s Aeneid, the legends of Jason and the Golden Fleece, and Homer’s Odyssey. These are the three classical stories which Booker considers use his archetypal plot of the Quest, and are among the most-painted secular narratives in European art.

As with his other basic plots, Booker divides this into five phases (p 83):

  • The Call, in which the hero’s environment has been rendered untenable, forcing them to undertake a long journey following some form of visionary guidance.
  • The Journey, in which the hero and companions survive a series of ordeals when their lives are threatened. Each of these culminates in their thrilling escape, and are interspersed with periods of respite. One of these ordeals may be a visit to the underworld, during which the hero is given guidance by a spirit from the past.
  • Arrival and Frustration, in which the hero comes within sight of their goal, only to face further obstacles to be overcome.
  • The Final Ordeal, which often consists of three challenges, ending in the greatest ordeal of them all.
  • The Goal, a kingdom or princess which is finally won and proves life-renewing.

The Call

Booker identifies this for Aeneas and Odysseus, but not for Jason.

Pompeo Batoni (1708–1787), Aeneas Fleeing from Troy (1753), oil on canvas, 76.7 × 97 cm, Galleria Sabauda, Turin, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

In Virgil’s account, this is clearly the appearance of the ghost of Aeneas’s wife Creusa to direct him to cross the Mediterranean in quest of his new home, which hasn’t proved popular in visual art. Pompeo Batoni’s rather earlier moment, perhaps the last in which Creusa was seen alive, has to make do.

For Jason, the origin of his quest for the Golden Fleece is less prominent in the legends, and to the best of my knowledge hasn’t been painted by a well-known artist.

In Homer’s account of Odysseus’s quest, his call is buried in the non-linear account of events. Surprisingly Booker is sidetracked into describing an attempt by the hero’s son Telemachus to discover what has happened to his father. If there’s a single moment in the Odyssey which represents the call it must be the prophesy of Tiresias, which takes place after Odysseus had spent a year with Circe, well into the story.

Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), Tiresias Appears to Ulysses During the Sacrifice (1780-85), watercolor and tempera on cardboard, 91.4 × 62.8 cm, Albertina, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

This hasn’t been a popular scene in painting, and I’m aware of only Henry Fuseli’s Tiresias Appears to Ulysses During the Sacrifice (1780-85) which depicts it.

The Journey

Most of the paintings of these three stories show ordeals which were encountered during the journey.

François Perrier (1594–1649), Aeneas and his Companions Fighting the Harpies (date not known), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Judging by surviving paintings, Aeneas escaped lightly, his only real ordeal being the encounter with harpies, shown in François Perrier’s painting.

Although accounts of the journey of Jason and the Argonauts to Colchis describe a series of ordeals, none has appeared in the paintings of more prominent artists.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus (1829), oil on canvas, 132.7 × 203 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

The opposite is true of the Odyssey, where hundreds of fine paintings show the various ordeals which Odysseus had to face during his journey to Ithaca. Perhaps the most popular is his encounter with Polyphemus the Cyclops, shown so well by JMW Turner.

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus (1891), oil on canvas, 149 x 92 cm, Gallery Oldham, Manchester, England. Wikimedia Commons.

The encounter with Circe was a combination of ordeal, when the crew were changed into pigs, and a year’s respite before Odysseus and his men departed from her island.

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.

Booker also draws attention to the unusual episode in which Odysseus meets Nausicaä and obtains the assistance he needs to complete his journey to Ithaca, as told so well by Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes.

Arrival and Frustration

Although about half of Virgil’s Aeneid is devoted to accounts of this phase in his story, that remains largely unpainted. The legends of Jason also lack any real equivalence.

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

Once again, it’s the Odyssey which not only contains the clearest account of this phase of the plot, but has also been fairly well-painted. Lovis Corinth’s painting of Ulysses Fighting the Beggar shows this most clearly of all, as the hero is getting the better of a beggar soon after he had arrived on Ithaca.

The Final Ordeal

This is the phase which has been most painted, in all three stories.

Luca Giordano (1634–1705), Aeneas and Turnus (date not known), oil on canvas, 176 × 236 cm, Palazzo Corsini al Parione, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Of the few paintings showing Aeneas in Italy, it’s Luca Giordano’s Aeneas and Turnus which shows the battle forming the Final Ordeal.

Annibale Carracci (1560–1609) (and Agostino, Ludovico Carracci), Jason and Medea (one painting from 18) (c 1583-84), fresco, dimensions not known, Palazzo Ghisilardi Fava, Bologna, Italy. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

In Jason’s story, it’s his success in the trials set for him by King Aeëtes, ending in Jason’s capture of the Golden Fleece. However, Booker’s model plot takes no account of his dependence on the King’s daughter Medea, which is a dominant feature both of the legends and their depictions.

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

For Odysseus, the final ordeal is the archery contest which leads to the killing of Penelope’s many suitors by the hero and his son Telemachus. Although this has also been painted by Lovis Corinth, Gustave Moreau’s unfinished The Suitors remains the most ambitious attempt to tell this in a single painting.

The Goal

Strangely, attainment of their goal is among the least-painted in any of these three stories. For Aeneas, this might be his apotheosis, which is almost exactly the opposite of Booker’s “life-renewing” change.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Jason (1865), oil on canvas, 204 × 115 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Jason also becomes badly unstuck, rather than achieving his goal, as implied in Gustave Moreau’s elaborate symbolic account. By abandoning Medea, surely the princess with whom he should have settled down, he went on to a tragic conclusion, dying when part of the rotten hulk of his ship the Argo fell on him.

Although there are hundreds of paintings of the Odyssey, the happy reunion of Odysseus with Penelope isn’t a scene which has proved successful.

Is The Quest a basic plot?

Despite these disparities between these painted narratives and the five phases laid out by Booker, in general terms these three conform reasonably well to that of The Quest. Homer’s Odyssey appears the best fit, and from Booker’s account seems to have been one of his primary models for this plot. Virgil’s Aeneid also works quite well, although there are so few paintings of the second half of the story, and the relationship between Dido and Aeneas goes beyond the bounds of the five phases.

But it’s Jason and the Golden Fleece which is by far the poorest fit, particularly for the complex character and role of Medea, whose relationship with Jason seems better suited to a different model of plot, rather than the Quest.


The Painted Story of the Aeneid: 1 From Troy to Carthage
The Painted Story of the Aeneid: 2 From Carthage to Apotheosis
Jason and the Golden Fleece 1
Jason and the Golden Fleece 2
Homer’s Odyssey in paintings: 1 Polyphemus and Circe
Homer’s Odyssey in paintings: 2 The Sirens, Calypso and Nausicaä
Homer’s Odyssey in paintings: 3 Return to Ithaca


Christopher Booker (2004) The Seven Basic Plots. Why we tell stories, Continuum. ISBN 9 780 826 45209 2