This painting, by the Swiss artist Angelica Kauffmann (c. 1741–1807), depicts a scene of the sea deity, Calypso, and her entourage of five other nymphs, playing host to two important guests who appeared on Calypso’s island. One guest is the youth in tan or gold garments, sitting despondently at the table. This young man is Telemachus, son of the famous Greek hero, Odysseus (or the Roman Ulysses), whose adventures were told in Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. Behind Telemachus, a grey-haired and long-bearded figure can be seen. All of the other characters know the old fellow by the alias, Mentor, but the person is really the goddess Athena (or the Roman Minerva) in a magical disguise. Despite these characters, Angelica Kauffmann’s painting does not take its inspiration from a scene in Homer’s ancient epics, nor does it recreate any other ancient Greek or Roman myths about Telemachus, Athena/Minerva, and Calypso. Instead, the painting re-creates a scene from a book called The Adventures of Telemachus, published in 1699 by Archbishop François de Salignac de La Mothe-Fénelon of Cambrai (his name can thankfully be shortened to François Fénelon). In this curious Odyssey spinoff, François Fénelon expanded on and added to the escapades and experiences that Telemachus underwent while he waited for his father to return home from the Trojan War, including the encounter with Calypso seen above. François Fénelon’s prose narration of the scene shown above was as follows:
“[Telemachus and Mentor] returned to Calypso, who was waiting for them. The nymphs with braided hair and white vestments immediately served up a plain repast, but exquisite with regard to its taste and elegance. There was no flesh but that of birds which they had taken in their nets, or of beasts which they had killed with their arrows in the chase. Wine, more delicious than nectar, flowed from large silver vases into golden cups crowned with flowers. There were brought in baskets all the fruits which spring promises, and autumn lavishes on the earth. At the same time four young nymphs began to sing. They first sung the war of the Gods against the Giants; then the loves of Jupiter and Semele; the birth of Bacchus, and his education under old Silenus; the race of Atalanta and Hippomenes, who was conqueror by means of the golden apples gathered in the gardens of the Hesperides; at last the Trojan war was likewise sung, and the combats and wisdom of Ulysses extolled to the skies. The chief of the nymphs, whose name was Leucothoë, joined the harmony of her lyre to the sweet voices of all the others. When Telemachus heard the names of his father, the tears which ran down his cheeks gave a new lustre to his beauty. But as Calypso perceived that he could not eat, and that he was seized with grief, she made a sign to the nymphs; upon which they sung the battle of the Centaurs with the Lapithæ, and of the descent of Orpheus to hell to fetch his dear Eurydice from thence” (François Fénelon, The Adventures of Telemachus, Book 1).
Such is the scene that Angelica Kauffmann reproduced in paint. It shows, Telemachus and Mentor/Athena being wined and dined by Calypso, while the nymphs provide entertainment through music and song. The musical nymphs must have just reached their songs about the exploits and feats of Telemachus’ father, Odysseus, because Calypso is depicted in the act of holding out her hand, signaling for the musicians to move on to a less sensitive topic. Athena (disguised as old Mentor) can also be seen trying to reassure Telemachus by placing a supportive hand on the boy’s shoulder.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Adventures of Telemachus by François Fénelon (published 1699), translated into English by Des Maizeaux (1781).