Angelica Kauffman (1741–1807) was a prolific and successful portrait and history painter who worked primarily in London and Rome in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. She attracted impressive international commissions from prominent patrons throughout eastern and western Europe. A founding member of England’s Royal Academy, she was accepted into the academies in Florence, Bologna, and Rome as well.
Among her many paintings based on classical mythology and early modern literary texts, Kauffman repeatedly depicted scenes from the life of Penelope, Odysseus’s faithful wife, drawn from the Homeric epic the Odyssey. The couple’s son, Telemachus, was also a popular subject. In this preliminary oil sketch of an episode from the story of Telemachus searching for his father, the young man is portrayed at the court of King Menelaus of Sparta. Menelaus has just informed Odysseus’s son that his father is alive but held captive on Calypso’s island. The picture relates to a large history painting of the same subject that Kauffman exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1773. The mixture of sentiment and atmosphere brilliantly rendered in this early study makes it an excellent example of how the artist initially conceived and developed her neoclassical compositions.
A major source for Kauffman and other eighteenth-century painters on the moral and political education of Odysseus’s son was The Adventures of Telemachus by François Fénelon (1651–1715), first published in 1699. Another popular reference was the translation of the ancient Greek epic by Alexander Pope (1688–1744), which initially appeared in 1725–26. Kauffman’s depiction in Telemachus at the Court of Sparta closely followed the latter’s account of the scene:
While thus pathetic to the Prince he spoke,
From the brave youth the streaming passion broke:
Studious to veil the grief, in vain represt,
His face he shrowded with his purple vest:
The conscious Monarch pierc’d the coy disguise,
And view’d his filial love with vast surprise;
Dubious to press the tender theme, or wait
To hear the youth enquire his father’s fate.
In this suspense bright Helen grac’d the room;
Before her breath’d a gale of rich perfume
(book 4, lines 149–58)
One visitor to the artist’s studio in London in 1768 found a copy of “Pope’s Homer lying nearby,” highlighting its privileged status among her literary possessions.
The central figure of the grieving Telemachus was based on Kauffman’s careful study of Adam hiding his face in the Expulsion from Paradise by Raphael (1483–1520) and his workshop in a fresco in the second arcade of the Vatican Loggia in Rome of 1517–19. It also recalled the long-lost but often described ancient painting Sacrifice of Iphigenia by Timanthes of Sicyon (about 406 BCE), in which he portrayed Agamemnon as veiled in order to convey the impression of unfathomable anguish. Such erudite references to Renaissance and classical models helped to establish Kauffman’s well-deserved reputation as one of the most influential artist-intellectuals of her time.
Like many of Kauffman’s paintings from this era, she commissioned a print to be made after the finished composition. These reproductions were sold as decorative objects and collectables. The delicate new dotted stipple-engraving technique was particularly well suited to rendering the tonal qualities of the original. Between 1774 and 1781, there were about seventy-five stipple prints issued after the work of Kauffman, which outnumbered those produced after any other painter in England. Following the example of several contemporaries, she recognized as well the power of prints to promote her pictures. As one critic noted during this period, “The preservation of such designs is an act of service to fame.”
Kauffman’s oil sketch of Telemachus at the Court of Sparta is the first work of art by this artist to enter the collection of the Hood Museum of Art. It was acquired in honor of Angela Rosenthal, Associate Professor of Art History at Dartmouth College from 1997 to 2010, whose scholarship helped to dramatically alter our understanding and appreciation of this celebrated painter.