19th Century European Paintings

The Patience of Penelope, Pre-Raphaelite Muse

By Amelia Williamson

O n 14 December 2017 John Roddam Spencer Stanhope’s Penelope will form part of the Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite and British Impressionist Art sale. The painting depicts in exquisite detail the story of Penelope from Homer’s famous epic poem the Odyssey. For millennia Penelope’s tale has represented marital fidelity, and she was a heroine that many Pre-Raphaelite painters chose to represent: not just for her famed morality, but also for her particular relevance to Victorian craftsmanship. 


Penelope, Queen of Ithaca, was the wife of King Odysseus (Ulysses) who was presumed dead after he did not return from the Trojan Wars. Penelope, a skilled and beautiful woman, was besieged by suitors who wanted to become her husband and ascend to the throne of Ithaca. But Penelope was loyal to her husband and to deter her suitors she proclaimed that she would only marry after she had finished the woven funeral shroud for her father-in-law.

“Young men, my wooers, since goodly Odysseus is dead, be patient, though eager for my marriage, until I finish this robe.”

By day she would work at her loom weaving, and by night she would undo the work she had done that day, so as to never complete the tapestry and never remarry. For three years she succeeded in her task, until her servant Melantho revealed Penelope’s plan to her suitors. Penelope finally organised a competition for her hand in marriage: the suitors would have to shoot an arrow through 12 axe heads to become her husband and King of Ithaca. Unbeknownst to Penelope, Ulysses had returned and competed in the trial himself, in disguise. Finally he won the trial and revealed his identity to Penelope.

It is no surprise that the Pre-Raphaelites were so interested in Penelope’s story. The Arts and Crafts movement, led by William Morris, spread through England from the 1880s. It sought to re-establish craftsmanship and traditional practices against the influx of mechanised products brought about by the Industrial Revolution. The Arts and Crafts movement saw the re-emergence of the traditional crafts of embroidery and tapestry, making Penelope’s myth particularly resonant in the late 19th Century. The Royal Institute of Needlework was established in 1872 and guided by the likes of William Morris, with Queen Victoria becoming its first patron three years later. Morris’ daughter, May Morris, was a leading light in the textiles of the Arts and Crafts movement and her work is currently being exhibited at the William Morris Gallery until 28th January 2018. 


It was not just the Pre-Raphaelites who found Penelope’s story of great importance. Her tale has been used as an example of marital fidelity for thousands of years. A fifth century B.C. terracotta relief from Melos (figure 3) depicts the recognisable scene of Penelope sat before her loom, her head resting in her hand in sorrow, whilst the returned Ulysses tries to convince her of his true identity.

Over two millennia separate this Greek rendering of the myth and Stanhope’s depiction of the same subject matter, and yet, the arrangement of Penelope, melancholically sat at her loom, remains identical. In Stanhope’s modern depiction of the myth, Penelope sits in front of the unfinished funeral shroud in an apple orchard, accompanied by her maid Melantho, who stands behind her. The thread Penelope holds in her hand leads to the word Ulysses woven in her shroud.


Burne-Jones produced a stained glass window the same year that Stanhope displayed his painting at the Royal Academy in 1864. From 1862-64 Burne-Jones produced several series of women from Chaucer’s ‘The Legend of Goode Wimmen’ in which he described the stories of classical heroines. Though Penelope was not part of Chaucer’s original version, Burne-Jones included her in the series of stained glass windows for William Morris’ company Marshall, Faulkner & Co. The design shows a demure Penelope who shares the downcast eyes with Stanhope and Rossetti’s heroine. Her inclusion in this series, represented with a needle in hand, reinforces the idea that Penelope was of particular importance to the Pre-Raphaelites because of her associations with needlework and embroidery. 

Stanhope’s Penelope demonstrates the endurance of the classical myth of Penelope, which is given a new lease of life by the Victorian preoccupation with craftsmanship. The painting is a vestige of one of the most enduring tales in Art History, its significance extending from the 5th Century B.C. in Greece to Victorian England.

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