Penelope is one of the most known women in the history of literature. She is Odysseus’ wife and a lonely, yet faithful, queen of Ithaca, who had waited almost twenty years for her king to return. Close to three thousand years old and still popular epic poem by Homer focuses instead on her husband, Odysseus, and his voyage home from the Trojan War. Odysseus, a brilliant strategist and one of the principal warriors during the siege of Troy, on his journey back to Ithaca angers Poseidon, God of the Sea. As a result, he encounters multiple obstacles, becomes a hostage many times, loses his entire crew and eventually arrives a beggar in his own land. Unrecognized by anyone, aged beyond belief, he needs to draw on his most precious talent, the art of cunning, as his palace is overrun by suitors who await Penelope’s decision in regards to whom she will choose to marry.
In The Odyssey Penelope is portrayed as a symbol of feminine chastity, loyalty and devotion to her husband in Homer’s world of men, war and politics. In the ancient Greek world, she represents the ideal of a woman: beautiful, skilled at loom, refined and faithful. She is described mostly through the eyes of her servants and people around her, and we can deduce that when she is not busy giving orders to her handmaids, she is “weeping for Odysseus, her beloved husband” (XVI, 499). Penelope, however, seems a perfect match for Odysseus when it comes to the art of cunning. To delay the inevitable moment when she will have to choose a husband from among the suitors, she conjures a need to start working on a shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes. This woman skillfully manipulates the suitors to believe it will take years to complete the project. She secretly unravels the threads by night to gain more time. When her trick is eventually revealed by one of her disloyal maids, Penelope is forced to bring her bluff to an end. Reading The Odyssey one cannot resist a feeling she is on some level aware the old beggar in her palace is her very own husband. When she is addressing Odysseus disguised as an old tramp, she throws a hint, “My good old Eurycleia, come and wash your master’s…equal in years” (page 402). Yet, she acts as if she hasn’t recognized him and carries on with the bow contest planned for the suitors. Even though her character is not as many faceted as her husband’s, Penelope, with a touch of ambiguity about her, is an intriguing person. She clearly inspired many artists throughout the ages to depict her in many art forms.
One of the paintings that portrays Penelope is by Thomas Seddon (1821-1856.) He was an English painter who specialized mostly in orientalist landscapes. His Penelope, painted in oil on canvas, was his first painting ever to be exhibited in public in London at the Royal Academy in 1852. Here Penelope takes the center of the stage in this art piece, unlike the original Homer’s character. She is portrayed as a young and very feminine woman with delicate facial features. She is sitting in a chair in a luxuriously appointed chamber holding unraveled threads. The first rays of dawn illuminate her face. Penelope looks dreamy and lost in thought and seems to be taking a break from unraveling her previous day’s labor.
Her maids are still asleep in a room adjoining the main chamber, away from their mistress. The room is dimly lit and their bodies are just vaguely outlined, covered in off-white bed linens. Their faces look innocent and young; they are slumbering. They are not rendered with much detail but rather as a group of sleeping women. Penelope, on the other hand, is awake, has a distinct identity and is juxtaposed with the image of her dreaming handmaids. Her slightly pale face is alive with emotions; there are thoughts she is meditating on. She might be thinking of her husband and wondering whether he is still alive. Perhaps she is pondering what takes him so long to return home. Is she worried about his fidelity or maybe she is concerned about her own matters at home, particularly about the suitors?
It seems as if the artist created this perceptible contrast between Penelope and her maids on purpose. This painting dates back to Victorian times, an era when a woman was predominantly dependent on her husband and considered his property. Yet, even though oppressed and with few rights, Victorian women were aware of social injustice and the suffragette movement was on the rise. Here Penelope’s white chiton is contrasted with the crimson cloth loosely draped around her body suggesting perhaps that she is conscious of how her social status as a woman is different from that of a man. The sleeping maids in the dark room might be symbolic of women’s lower status and lesser awareness in Homer’s times. Original Penelope doesn’t seem to protest about the life she is given by the Fates, neither does she question Odysseus about his whereabouts, long years spent with Calypso and Circe, his emotional involvement with them and his sexual fidelity or the lack of it. She never raises a question about why it took him seven long years to leave Calypso’s island. Instead, she feels a need to justify the presence of the suitors in the house and to clear herself of any suspicion that she had been unfaithful to him. In The Odyssey, she is praised for remaining loyal all these years and ready to resume her life the moment Odysseus comes back. Seddon’s Penelope is portrayed as a person with a distinct personality; the splotches of red in her hair, shoe and the crimson cloak covering her are suggestive of her emotional turmoil and pain. There is a leopard hide under her chair, which makes one wonder if Penelope might have a wild streak in her but has repressed it and hid deeply. Her life resembles this semi-dark room to which she is mostly confined. As the queen she is living a luxurious, rich and comfortable life but devoid of love, without her husband. She chooses to remain in her private chamber with her maids because the men who are occupying the downstairs dining hall crossed the boundaries of decency and overstayed their visit. Penelope, in her own house, is restricted to the ladies quarters because as a woman she has no power to enforce the rules against the rowdy and ill-behaved crowd of arrogant suitors. Even though the room is tastefully decorated and is as pretty as it can be, Penelope’s only vision of her married life remains locked in a richly woven and colorful tapestry on the wall, which alludes to her husband leaving for the Trojan War. The questions concerning her absent partner remain unanswered and she cannot be happy about the state of affairs in her own house.
Seddon’s painting holds a message. Penelope is seated in her chair; her head is turned towards an open window as she is contemplating a sunrise rendered in a delicate palette of pearly pinks. Is she merely gazing out the window in search of Odysseus’ ship or is this symbolic of her anticipation of a new dawn for her and the next generations of women? Deconstructing the artist’s masterfully designed plan, it seems he conceived this painting as a metaphor of women’s ascent towards freedom. He divided the canvas into three visible planes: the dark room with sleeping maids, the chamber with Penelope and a window depicting a pink sunrise. The most obscure part of the picture is alluding to how entrapped and objectified women were throughout the history. The second panel with Penelope is symbolic of how confined they still were in Victorian times yet already aware of gender inequality. Finally, the last one, the window with the sunrise is a promise of a new beginning and better times. This is the artist’s message of hope for the next generations of women.
Seddon’s painting speaks to me on many levels. The details he so masterfully rendered are very true to the original story, which I devoured. The woman he depicted as Penelope is so delicate and her facial expression, her dreamy gaze leave much to interpret. I feel as if I want to put words in her mouth the moment she encounters Odysseus after the bloody revenge in the hall. I am ready to hear her ask many questions, and yet I am aware she is not going to. Perhaps Homer’s Penelope is right after all, with all due respect to gender equality, she knows in relationships some things are better left unspoken.
The Odyssey, translation by Robert Fagles
- image source: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/penelope-thomas-seddon.html