Kauffmann was one of the few 18th century women to acquire a powerful reputation as an artist by the diverse use of her work. Robert Adam adopted some of her designs for his interior decoration; her paintings were used by Josiah Wedgwood as sources for decorating his porcelain wares and others were reproduced by Matthew Boulton between the mid 1770s and 1782 as “mechanical paintings”; numerous others were engraved by the likes of Bartolozzi and Ryland for the sudden fashion in the last quarter of the 18th century for decorative ‘furniture prints’.
The theme of Penelope and Odysseus seems to have particularly interested Kauffmann and it was a subject she returned to a number of times during her years in England executing them all on copper of approximately the same size. The popularity of these images was such that together with the circulation of the engraved image, in this instance by Jean-Marie Delattre in 1779, precise copies, of a high specification, such as this painting, seem to have also been undertaken. Given the exact nature of this version it seems likely that this has been directly painted whilst observing one of Kauffmann’s originals such as that at Burghley House.
The painting alludes to the moment in Homer’s The Odyssey when Penelope, after years waiting for the return of Odysseus after the Trojan War, presumes he must be dead. Surrounded by suitors for her hand, she finds her husband’s mighty bow, and weeping, mourns his passing and her fate. Challenging those present to string and use the bow, only one manages the task, revealing himself as none other than Odysseus.
Angelica Kauffmann was born in Switzerland and travelled to Italy, learning artistic techniques by copying paintings by the old masters and made contact with the English community in Rome. Coming to Britain she became part of the circle of Sir Joshua Reynolds and one of the foundation members of the Royal Academy in 1768. She demonstrated her creative talents in a variety of artistic productions, from portraits and history paintings to etchings, engraving, murals, porcelain, furniture and interiors. She is particularly distinctive in her portrayal of women in a classical setting, this painting being a good example. In 1781, Angelica Kauffmann married the Venetian painter Francesco Zucchi and settled in Rome buying the house of the painter Anton Raphael Mengs. A splendid social life developed around them, entertaining foreign dignitaries, writers and royalty. Goethe called her in a letter to Weimar “die …. vielleicht kultivierteste Frau Europas” (the most accomplished woman in Europe.)