This painting, by the French artist Jacques-Louis David (c. 1748 – 1825), was inspired by stories about the ancient Greek mythological figure, Telemachus—the son of the famous hero, Odysseus. Telemachus, of course, is represented as the young man draped in blue cloth, wielding a spear. Beside him, resting on his shoulder, is a character named Eucharis. As the story goes, she was a nymph said to have been in the entourage of the goddess, Calypso. Curiously, despite the ancient Greek characters involved in this scene, the particular story that inspired Jacques-Louis David’s painting was anything but ancient. The idea for this scene did not come from Homer’s ancient epics, and no encounter between Telemachus and Eucharis was recorded in any other ancient Greek or Roman myths or legends. Instead, the painting brings to life an episode from a much later 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 his intriguing Odyssey spinoff, François Fénelon expanded on and added to the escapades and experiences that Telemachus might have undergone while he waited for his father to return home from the Trojan War. As told in the book, Telemachus and another character named Mentor (who was Athena in disguise), eventually were shipwrecked on Calypso’s Island. During their stay there, Aphrodite (or Venus) unleashed mischievous Eros (or Cupid) on the mythical isle, and he spread his amorous influence throughout the nymph-filled settlement. In particular, the love-god made both Calypso and Eucharis fall hopelessly in love with Telemachus. There could only be one winner in the competition for the young man’s attention, and, causing Calypso much jealousy and fury, it was ultimately Eucharis whose affections caused Telemachus’ own heart to flutter in reciprocal attraction. Athena, meanwhile, disapproved of the whole situation, and she battled with the love-god behind the scenes to free Telemachus from the hormone-infused island. In the end, Athena was able to provoke Calypso into demanding that the shipwrecked strangers leave the island on a newly built ship. Despite Jacques-Louis David’s painting, there was no time for smitten Telemachus and Eucharis to say a farewell, for Calypso angrily marched her entourage of nymphs away from the shore, while Athena similarly dragged Telemachus to the ships. On Calypso’s exit and Eucharis’ reluctant obedience to her ruling goddess, François Fénelon wrote:
“Like a priestess of Bacchus, who fills the air and makes the lofty mountains of Thrace ring with her howlings, she [Calypso] runs across the woods with a dart in her hand, calling her nymphs, and threatening to kill all who refused to follow her. They, terrified at this menace, run in crowds around her. Eucharis herself advanced, with tearful eyes, looking afar at Telemachus, to whom she no longer durst to speak” (François Fénelon, The Adventures of Telemachus, Book 7).
A similar passage was written about Telemachus, who also locked eyes with distant Eucharis as the two ill-fated lovers were pulled apart by their leaders. François Fénelon wrote:
“Telemachus followed with reluctance, continuously looking behind him, and gazing at Eucharis who was going away from him. Not being able to see her face, he viewed her lovely plaited hair, and her flowing vestments and noble gait, and would gladly have kissed the very prints of her feet. Nay, when he had lost sight of her, he still listened, imagining that he heard her voice, though absent, he saw her; her image was painted and living as it were before his eyes” (François Fénelon, The Adventures of Telemachus, Book 7).
Such, then, is the story behind Jacques-Louis David’s painting. It shows a scene of Telemachus and Eucharis together before they were ultimately forced apart by higher powers. As Telemachus was pushed toward the ships, he begged Athena, saying, “I am resolved to follow you; but I have not yet taken my leave of Eucharis…Permit me at least to say to her, O nymph, the cruel Gods, the Gods jealous of my happiness, constrain me to depart, but they shall sooner put a period to my life, than blot you out of my memory” (The Adventures of Telemachus, Book 7). A farewell was not permitted by Athena in the book, but Jacques-Louis David fulfilled Telemachus’ wish in the painting above.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Adventures of Telemachus by François Fénelon (published 1699), translated into English by Des Maizeaux (1781).