Penelope and the Suitors, completed in 1912, was the last of John William Waterhouse’sJohn William Waterhouse was an English artist known primarily for his depictions of women set in scenes from myth, legend or poetry. He is the best known of that group of artists who from the 1880s revived the literary themes favoured by the Pre-Raphaelites. paintings on a mythological theme exhibited at the Royal Academy. Commissioned by Aberdeen Art Gallery, it was first displayed at its exhibition on New Year’s Eve 1911 before being returned to the artist for amendment and completion and then shown at the Royal Academy in the summer of 1912. The following year it was exhibited at the Royal Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts.
The setting of the painting has its roots in a scene from the final parts of Homer’s Odyssey, the narrative Waterhouse had previously drawn inspiration from for his 1891 depiction of Circe as portrayed in Offering the Cup to UlyssesAn oil painting in the Pre-Raphaelite style by John William Waterhouse, created in 1891. . Echoing the work of Renaissance artist Pintoricchio,[a] Waterhouse depicts Penelope, wife of Odysseus – known as Ulysses to the Romans – sitting at a loom weaving a tapestry. Penelope thinks her husband, who has been absent for twenty years, is dead, and in an attempt to discourage her determined suitors, she devises the subterfuge of telling her amorous followers that she will only choose a new husband once the shroud she is working on is complete; she labours all day, but unravels her work every night.
Waterhouse borrowed the style of Rossetti by having a central figure surrounded by onlookers who are placed at the extremities of the painting; he also employed the intense colour techniques favoured by third-generation Pre-Raphaelites. Primarily composed using tones of red and brown, Waterhouse opted to use black for Penelope’s hair, whereas despite being based on the same model, the other two women sport the russet or red hair colouring fashionable with the Pre-Raphaelites, but in keeping with the tints throughout the rest of the painting. Penelope shares a similar pose and hairstyle with that the artist used in his contemporary works of CirceCirce is the title given to two oil on canvas sketches by the English artist John William Waterhouse; he worked on both during the final years of his career from 1911 to 1914. , providing a link between the faithful wife of Odysseus and his lover, the sorceress.
Committee members of Aberdeen Art Gallery approached Waterhouse in 1910 asking to be informed when he had a painting suitable to form part of its collection. Shortly afterwards they were shown a canvas with some basic ideas of composition in place, which they looked favourably on. Documentation and records of Waterhouse’s personal life and character are patchy[b] but some records are extant concerning this artwork. Waterhouse and his wife, Esther KenworthyEnglish artist, specialist in flower painting; her husband was fellow artist John William Waterhouse, lived at 10 Hall Road in the St John’s Wood district of London from 1900, and, like his contemporaries living in the capital, had to deal with the problems caused by adverse weather conditions. Oil paint was slow to dry; humidity and coal smoke combined to generate thick fog causing further difficulties during the darkest, dampest months of the year. On Christmas Day 1911, Waterhouse wrote to Percy Bate, the newly appointed director of Aberdeen Art Gallery, explaining that work on the painting was delayed owing to “dark weather”. He also sent a letter that day to James Murray, the Chairman of the Gallery, who was concerned the painting would not arrive in Aberdeen in time for its planned inclusion in the New Year’s Eve exhibition.[c]
A few days later, despite feeling the painting remained incomplete, Waterhouse dispatched the canvas to Aberdeen so it could be displayed at the exhibition. It arrived in the city on the morning of Friday, 29 December 1911, and was mounted in the gallery in time for those attending a presentation ceremony that afternoon to see it. Attendees, who included the Lord Provost, councillors, magistrates and other dignitaries, were initially reported in a local newspaper as viewing it “with great admiration”. The following day, the same newspaper carried a short piece intimating that the committee of the gallery had agreed, subject to confirmation by the council, to purchase the painting for £1400. According to historian Peter Trippi, “an uproar ensued”; a barrage of complaints were received with one letter published the next day claiming that the painting lacked emotion, and comparing it unfavourably to the work of Rossetti. Objections focused mainly on the price; despite being discounted from £1500 – the amount a private buyer would be expected to pay[d] – locals and dignitaries were indignant at the cost. Several other newspaper articles appeared, including a full column letter from Professor Grierson,[e] who listed criticisms of the painting while at the same time raising questions concerning the policies and functions of the art gallery committee.
Aside from the price, objectors cited incorrect perspectives, figures based on the same model and they wanted the funding used for Scottish artists instead. Detractors highlighted inaccuracies in the representation of archaeological features such as the Pompeian-style frieze when the narrative was set in Ithaca; the inclusion of Egyptian lotus within the carpet design; and, if Penelope was weaving a shroud, it should have been white. Additionally, the loom was incorrectly angled as it should have been upright. Bate, who was not a fan of Waterhouse’s work generally,[f] wrote a letter to Murray on 27 January 1912 listing the technical issues that had to be rectified. Despite this, earlier in the month Bate sent a letter to the Lord Provost of Aberdeen refuting the criticisms, explaining Waterhouse was not replicating a dictionary definition of the scene; instead, as the curator expected from great artists, Waterhouse was producing his own interpretation of a romantic scene. The letter also justified the cost of the painting. The Lord Provost read Bate’s letter to the members of the council when they met to discuss approval of the purchase of the painting; it was unanimously approved.
The painting was sent back to Waterhouse to enable him to make adjustments prior to the exhibition at the Royal Academy in the summer. On 12 April the artist wrote to Bate suggesting he might extend the canvas around a couple of inches on the left hand side, a technique he had used on earlier works like Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May in 1909 and Flora and the Zephyrs, his Academy exhibit in 1898. Although this was never carried out, he did eliminate the separation between the male suitors and Penelope and her female attendants caused by the rear of her chair.
Exhibitions and provenance
The alterations were carried out in time for the painting to be included in the summer exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1912; it was later sent to be included in the Royal Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts of 1913. The painting remains part of the Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums collection. In 1927 the gallery purchased another Waterhouse painting, The DanaidesOil on canvas painting by John William Waterhouse exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1906., his 1906 Royal Academy submission.[g]
- Penelope with the Suitors, a fresco by Bernardino Pintoricchio from c. 1509, shows a similar scene; it was acquired by the National Gallery in 1874.
- Modern day historians and academics including Trippi and Anthony Hobson believe that diaries, correspondence and journals were thrown out or destroyed; there is also only scant detail or mention of Waterhouse in the letters of his contemporaries.
- James Murray (1850–1933), knighted in 1915, was the Liberal Member of Parliament for East Aberdeenshire, an artist with exhibits at the Royal Academy who went on to become a noted art collector; Trippi further describes Murray as “the beef and tanning magnate”.
- Waterhouse had never previously levied that much for any of his work.
- At the time Sir Herbert John Clifford Grierson (1866–1960) was a professor at Aberdeen University; knighted in 1935, he introduced English Literature into the curriculum. A literary critic and academic, he was deeply knowledgeable and was also passionate about poetry.
- When Bate was at the Royal Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts he would not buy any work by Waterhouse and he omitted mention of the artist in his 1899 book about Pre-Raphaelites despite covering others, such as Byan Shaw, who were much younger than Waterhouse.
- An earlier smaller version from 1904 of The Danaides exists; owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber, it has five Danaides instead of seven.