This painting was created by Benjamin West (c. 1738 – 1820), an artist who was born and raised in Britain’s North American colonies, but relocated to live in England before and after the American Revolution. West’s artwork here features beings from ancient Greek mythology. On the left, the young man dressed in red and green is Telemachus, son of the famous Greek hero, Odysseus (or the Roman Ulysses), whose adventures were told in Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. Beside him is a character known by the alias, Mentor, yet this figure is actually the goddess Athena (or the Roman Minerva) in a magical disguise. Opposite them stand a troupe of nymphs, led by the sea deity Calypso, seen with her hand extended to Telemachus and the incognito Athena. Curiously, despite the ancient Greek characters involved in this scene, the particular story that inspired Benjamin West’s painting was anything but ancient. The painting was not inspired by a scene from Homer’s ancient epics, nor did 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 (or simply François Fénelon). In this intriguing 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:
“On a sudden she [Calypso] perceived the fragments of a vessel that had just been wrecked, rowers benches broken in pieces, oars scattered here and there on the sand, a rudder, a mast and cordage floating on the shore. Then she descried two men at a distance; one of them seemed [along] in years, the other, though young, resembled Ulysses. He had his sweet and noble aspect, with his stature and majestic pose. The Goddess knew him to be Telemachus, the son of that hero: but though the Gods far surpass all men in knowledge, she could not discover who the venerable person was by whom Telemachus was attended; because the superior Gods conceal from the inferior whatever they please; and Minerva, who accompanied Telemachus in the shape of Mentor, would not be known by Calypso” (François Fénelon, The Adventures of Telemachus, Book 1).
Such, then, was the text and passage that inspired Benjamin West’s painting. It shows Telemachus and Athena/Mentor freshly shipwrecked on the shores of the island. Calypso, in turn, is seen going to meet these visitors on her island, accompanied by her entourage of nymphs. Benjamin West froze the image at just about the moment when Calypso recognized Telemachus to be the son of Odysseus (or Ulysses), who had also visited her island during his Odyssey.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Adventures of Telemachus by François Fénelon (published 1699), translated into English by Des Maizeaux (1781).