Penelope. 1864. Oil on canvas, 42 x 32 inches (106.7 x 81.3 cm). Private collection. Click on image to enlarge it.
he subject of this painting comes from Homer’s The Odyssey. Penelope was the Queen of Ithaca and the faithful wife of King Ulysses. During his ten-year absence, when Ulysses was fighting in the Trojan wars, Penelope was assailed by suitors vying for her affection. They insisted Ulysses must be dead and that she must choose a new husband from among their number. Penelope, however, refused to believe that her husband had died or abandoned her. She rebuffed their advances and kept them at bay with various ruses. One of these was to say that she would marry one of the men after completing a woven funeral pall she was making for her father-in-law the lord Laertes. She would therefore work industriously at her tapestry everyday as her importunate suitors watched her progress, but at night she would secretly unpick her day’s work. Fortunately Ulysses returned in time to save Penelope from a forced remarriage and slaughtered the suitors who had tormented her.
Stanhope began Penelope at his studio in Cobham. The painting was again influenced by early Renaissance Italian painting, despite the classical costume of the two female figures, an odd admixture of two historical styles. The painting portrays Penelope weaving at her loom and seated in an apple-orchard. She rests her head wearily on her right hand while she fantasizes about her beloved husband. Peter B. Trippi believes her pose derives from Albrecht Dürer’s engraving of Melancholia.
Penelope modestly wears her hair in plaits. She is sheltered from the hot Mediterranean sun and the watchful eyes of her admirers by a red canopy and a black screen. In her left hand is the thread that leads to the word Ulysses that she is weaving and to whom she is both emotionally and morally tied. The tapestry features two women also wearing red and blue. The inscription on the tapestry is a quotation from Homer’s The Iliad that describes the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon. Behind her is one of her serving-maids picking apples from a tree laden with fruit. This girl, with hair the colour of red-gold and hanging loose, is possibly Melantho, the closest of Penelope’s twelve maidservants. Her loosened hair could have been used to suggest deviancy and she will eventually detect Penelope’s ploy and reveal her mistress’s treachery to the suitors. The half-eaten apples in the foreground could perhaps symbolise her wantonness, cast aside as she reaches up to pluck more fruit, while Penelope abstains.
Apples or Oranges? — The Painting’s Ambiguity
The symbol of the apple could relate to the Golden Apple of Discord that was awarded as the prize in the Judgement of Paris that was the catalyst for the Trojan War. The apple may also relate back to the temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden and the original sin. The apple was frequently used by the Pre-Raphaelites for its sexual connotations, such as in D. G. Rossetti's Bocca Baciata of 1859 or Venus Verticordia of 1864. The model for the servant girl plucking the apples may be Fanny Cornforth who had previously posed for Rossetti’s Boca Baciata. Based on the colour of the fruit and the shape of the leaves on the tree, some scholars, however, believe the painting depicts oranges and not apples. Orange trees were typically associated with brides and Trippi thinks the overripe and discarded oranges were meant to symbolize Penelope’s passing of fertility. The inclusion of orange trees may have been influenced by those found in Botticelli’s masterpiece Primavera that Stanhope would have seen at the Uffizi in Florence.
This interest in female virtue and particularly bridal fidelity may have been prompted by Stanhope’s own marriage only four years prior to when Penelope was painted. Simon Poë has suggested an entirely different meaning to this painting, which he believes had great personal significance to Stanhope. Poë feels the model for both Penelope and for the servant girl was, in fact, Stanhope’s wife Elizabeth (Lilla) Wyndham King. She was the widow of Captain George Frederick Dawson who had been killed at the battle of Sebastopol during the Crimean War. According to Poë, belie ”Stanhope was addressing in this painting the social problem of war-widows, but also on a more private level, was using it to memorialize Lilla’s first husband, George Dawson, in order to pay tribute to her fidelity to his memory and to document Stanhope’s own efforts to persuade her to bring her mourning to a conclusion and marry him” (71). After the Crimean war
sentiment and respect for the memory of the fallen would have intensified feeling against remarriage by widows…The stubbornness of a woman who resisted appeals to make such a second marriage would have been seen as a virtue, and such a woman might well have been described as ‘a very Penelope’…The standing figure, far from being the servant maid or any other second character in the story, is an alternative Lilla who has let her hair down (which a married woman would only do when alone with her husband), once more enjoying the fruits of life and love. Both figures in the painting receive their meed of praise. Lilla has mourned her husband with due formality, and has not forgotten him – nor will she ever. The picture presents two alternatives: a life dedicated to perpetual mourning, and a life in which a term is put to mourning and the world is embraced anew, which, given the position from which he makes his retrospect, we must see Stanhope as asserting to be better. [74-5]
The Painting’s Reception
F. G. Stephens in The Athenaeum praised both Penelope and Rispah when they were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1864: “Penelope (476), by the same, - the wife of Ulysses at her loom - has much excellent colour in its flesh; the treatment of the draperies, although rather thin, is original and careful. The face of the woman in blue does Mr. Stanhope great credit both in painting and conception. In these paintings the artist has been eminently successful with the backgrounds, not only the vigorous colour they exhibit, but in the pathetic and apt expressiveness which fits them to the subjects” (682) Tom Taylor in The Times, who had already lambasted James Whistler over his Wapping that “eccentricity is not originality”, then went on to criticize Stanhope as: “another eccentric, with so much oddity, united to so delicate a sense of beauty, and so much refined feeling for colour, that the critic hardly knows whether to begin by scolding or praising him” (8). The Illustrated London News criticized Stanhope largely for treating a classical subject in a medieval revival style:
There is too much ‘romantic’ feeling in the treatment of this classical theme; but what shall or can be said of R. S. Stanhope’s intensely Gothic rendering of the story of ‘Penelope’ (476) and her web? For a contemporary painter to represent a classical subject as a monkish illustrator may have done, regardless of all the probabilities of time and place – is it not an affectation amounting to impertinence? And this picture is, in some respects, even more grotesque than a medieval illuminator’s version of the subject would have been; for Mr. Stanhope has given a blackness to his outline and background, and a piecemeal, inlaid effect to his composition, totally destructive of aerial perspective, which is plainly derived from the leaden setting and general effects of stained glass in its transition from the mosaic of the thirteenth to the pictorial character of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. We should feel inclined to say that for it to be possible for a painter of the present day to show such an entire want of fitness and ‘keeping’ between his subject and style argues not only the want of imaginative sympathy, but also a deficiency of artistic feeling. Yet it is impossible to deny the tender regretfulness of Penelope’s expression and the delicate beauty of the flesh tints. Probably, however, we should see fewer of these instances of perverted taste did not critics who have to establish a character of superior connoisseurship find in them so much more than unsophisticated persons and the body of artists themselves can discover. 
Other Victorian Paintings of Penelope and Trojan War Subjects
The legends of the Trojan war were the subjects of pictures by other Pre-Raphaelite artists in the 1860s. These artists, however, were more interested in the infidelity of Helen and the madness of Cassandra than in the fidelity of Penelope. Rossetti’s Helen of Troy was painted a year before Stanhope’s Penelope. Rossetti did make a chalk drawing of Penelope [collection of Lord Lloyd-Webber] but this was five years later in 1869. The pose of Penelope is very similar that that in Stanhope’s version. Frederick Sandys oil painting of Cassandra [Ulster Museum] dates to c1863-64, while his chalk drawing of this subject dates much later to 1895. Thomas Seddon painted his more conventional version of Penelope in 1852 while Val Prinsep showed a Penelope at the Royal Academy in 1872.
“Fine Arts. Exhibition of the Royal Academy.” The Illustrated London News 44 (May 21, 1864): 494.
Poë, Simon. “Penelope and her suitors: women, war, and widowhood in a Pre-Raphaelite painting.” The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies 11 (Spring 2002): 68–79.
Stephens, Frederic George. “Fine Arts. Royal Academy.” The Athenaeum No. 1907 (May 14, 1864): 682-84.
Taylor, Tom. “The Royal Academy.” The Times (May 5, 1864): 8.
Trippi, Peter B. “John Roddam Spencer-Stanhope. The Early Years of a Second Generation Pre-Raphaelite 1858-73.” M.A. Thesis. Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, 1993.
Last modified 8 May 2022