Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Pre-Raphaelite Visions of Penelope

JR Spencer Stanhope was a follower of Pre-Raphaelite Painter Edward Burne Jones. I love his paintings, though critics have often noted that he was not as subtle an artist as Burne Jones. He is noted for his bold use of colour, which unfortunately doesn't come across in this copy of his painting Penelope, which he finished in 1864. The Pre-Raphaelites were a rather close knit circle, as you may have noticed, and Stanhope was actually Evelyn de Morgan's uncle!

Stanhope's Penelope is one of those paintings that has a real way of capturing the emotions of characters in a classic tale. As you will recall, Penelope was the wife of Odysseus in Homer's Odyssey, who waited patiently for him throughout his long travels. She is often associated with the virtue of faithfulness, since she remained dedicated to her husband in spite of the hoards of suitors that dogged her in his absence.

Penelope waited 20 long years for Odysseus to return from fighting the Trojan War. Stanhope's painting portrays Penelope weaving Odysseus' burial shroud (which you will notice is nearly complete--Peneope had promised her suitors that she would remarry once it was complete--but she tricked them by removing some of the stitches every night).

After Penelope's trickery is revealed, she meets an old beggar (Odysseus in disguise, of course). After a long talk with him, she concludes that she will only marry the man who can re-string Odysseus' bow and use it to shoot an arrow through 12 ax handles. After a series of dismal failures on the part of her suitors, Odysseus of course succeeds in a triumph somewhat reminiscent of Arthur's feat of removing the sword from the stone. He reveals himself to be her long lost husband, and after a final identity test, they are reunited.

This painting seems to capture Penelope's sadness quite well! The painting emphasises her emotions, whereas JW Waterhouse's portrays her dedication to her craft. In my opinion his painting is somewhat more artful than it is thoughtful. I love both paintings, but in this case, I think Stanhope's Penelope is my favourite.


Sarah said...

Margaret, you should come over to our house next time you're in WA. Andrew and I found some really beautiful Pre-Raphaelite posters, which we framed and have hanging throughout the house. I just love their artwork. I have a really nice book full of their artwork, but yet I've never seen some of the pictures you've posted on your blog. They're just beautiful!

wanderlustnpixiedust said...

Although I find both paintings quite beautiful, I agree with you. I also prefer Stanhope's Penelope!

K Spoering said...

Wow, Margaret, how is it that I've never seen either of these? I'm always cautioning my students to 'not be Penelope' as they spend so much time un-weaving (which I try to never do). I love them both, but particularly the Stanhope, as she's weaving on an upright tapestry loom!