Tuesday, December 8, 2015

A Celebration of an Ideal Woman: Penelope

The tapestry, Penelope Unraveling Her Work at Night, created by Candace and Dora Wheeler in 1886 depicts the lone figure of Penelope, Odysseus’ faithful, long suffering wife from Homer’s Odyssey, unraveling her famous burial shroud for her father -in -law which she used to keep aggressive suitors at bay while awaiting the return of her missing husband.
It has been offered that Dora chose Penelope as her muse for this tapestry because of Penelope’s outstanding moral virtue and fidelity, traits admired by both Dora and her mother.
This tapestry has been interpreted through the lens of prior knowledge and reading of Homer’s, Odyssey. Due to this weaving being drawn from the strong character of Penelope, it has not been difficult to draw meaning and interpretation. The tapestry depicts a longing, faithful and crafty wife toiling over her loom in hopes her long gone husband returns from his voyage. Homer creating a faithful, witty and strong female character during his time was not common, as most women were viewed as being tempestuous and deceitful. Penelope as a woman stands out for her integrity and dedication, making her an ideal heroine for Dora and her mother Candace to be inspired by.
There is significant symbolism in both Penelope as an ideal woman and the process of weaving itself.  It is my argument that the tapestry, “Penelope Unraveling Her Work at Night”, was not only made in order to appreciate the fantastic literary heroine Penelope was, but also to signify and equate the strength of women and their ability to create in a society where they receive little to no recognition.
For hundreds of years, Penelope has been recreated at her loom, portraying the ideal woman, a woman of integrity, strength and virtue. In a world where women have been often portrayed as solely sexual objects, the recreations of a virtuous women such as Penelope is worth admiration and celebration.

Dora Wheeler, Penelope Unraveling Her Work at Night, 1886,
Silk embroidered with silk thread, 2002.230
The tapestry depicts the lone figure of Penelope, Odysseus’ faithful, long suffering wife from Homer’s Odyssey, unraveling her famous burial shroud for her father -in -law which she used to keep aggressive suitors at bay while awaiting the return of her missing husband. Wheeler uses various shades of warm golden and brown threads giving the tapestry an ethereal glowing quality. The colors warm in tone and rich in hue create a familiarity with the subject of the tapestry. Since Wheeler has depicted Penelope with her arms outstretched, creating a slightly asymmetrical balance, the viewer is drawn to a dynamic piece of art in which the significant action of Penelope unraveling her tapestry is highlighted. The action of Penelope unraveling her creation is the focal point and most critical aspect of the tapestry

Angelica Kauffmann, Penelope At Her Loom, 1764, Oil on Canvas, Brighton Gallery
Kauffmann's representation of Penelope affirms the desolation felt by Penelope day after day at her loom. To the left of Penelope, a dog is depicted as feeling just as gloomy and forsaken as its owner. The dog symbolizes the fervent loyalty of Penelope to her husband. Her despair is evident in her posture and her arched brows as well as through the weariness in her eyes. Kauffman depicts her as the ideal embodiment of devotion and patience even under such distress. 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Penelope, 1869, Drawing Chalk, Private Collection
The golden color scheme of Rossetti's depiction of Penelope is incredibly similar to the color scheme of the tapestry created by Dora Wheeler. The thread pieces of the unraveled tapestry in her hand reveal her at work while her soft posture and contemplative gaze reveal her longing for her husband. It is evident when looking at Rossetti's portrayal of Penelope that her desire for her husband to return is great and that the pressure of maintaining her firm stance in denying any other man is an incredible burden on her soft shoulders.

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Penelope, 1849
Stanhope's portrait of Penelope allows the viewer insight into the heartache and misery Penelope experiences during her husband's long absence. This gives more weight and importance to the steadfastness of Penelope's character. Her despair is evident through her body posture and the anguish written across her face. There appears to be a woman in her tapestry entangled by something, or someone, perhaps symbolic of how she feels surrounded by aggressive suitors. 

 Joseph Wright, Penelope Unraveling her Web, 1783, Oil on Canvas, Getty Museum, California
 The potter Josiah Wedgwood commissioned this painting from Joseph Wright as a compliment to female fidelity and industry. Wright presents Penelope unraveling her tapestry at night. In the foreground of the painting, there is a statue of  Odysseus, invoking his presence in her life even in his physical absence. This reveals the artists interpretation that Odysseus was constantly on Penelope's mind, pushing her to remain loyal to her husband. The dog sitting to her right symbolizes her loyalty as well. 

John William WaterHouse, Penelope and the Suitors, 1912, Oil on Canvas, Aberdeen Art Gallery, Scotland                                                                                    
Waterhouse's painting of Penelope gives further visual and imaginative insight into Penelope's plight. This painting reveals the longing pressure put onto Penelope by her suitors who are clamoring into her chamber attempting to persuade her into marriage. Penelope's resolution in refusing to give in is depicted through her intense concentration on her loom even when being pressed upon by desperate suitors. The dutiful Penelope cannot be swayed even by flowers, adoring gazes and proclamations of love. 

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