Penelope Unraveling Her Web

Object Details


Penelope Unraveling Her Web


Joseph Wright of Derby (English, 1734 - 1797)




1783 - 1784


Oil on canvas


106 x 131.4 cm (41 3/4 x 51 3/4 in.)

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The potter Josiah Wedgwood commissioned this painting from Joseph Wright of Derby as a tribute to female loyalty and industry. In Homer's Odyssey, Penelope, awaiting the return of her husband Odysseus from the Trojan War, was beset by suitors who claimed that Odysseus had been shipwrecked. She promised to marry one of them after she completed a shroud for her father-in-law. Steadfastly loyal to her absent husband, Penelope unraveled her weaving at the end of each day to avoid remarrying.

Wright presented Penelope late at night, rewinding her thread into a ball. In the foreground, the backlit statue of Odysseus invokes his presence. Moonlight bathes the sleeping figure of their son Telemachus while Penelope looks on. The strong effect of light and dark contributes to the hushed atmosphere and increases the drama of Penelope's plight.

1784/1785 - 1795

Josiah Wedgwood, English, 1730 - 1795, master 1778 (Etruria, Stafford, England), commissioned from the artist, 1784/1785; by inheritance within the Wedgwood family, 1795.

1795 -

Wedgwood Family, by inheritance to Mr. and Mrs. Hensleigh Cecil Wedgwood.

- 1987

Mr. Hensleigh Cecil Wedgwood, 1908 - 1992 (New York, New York)

- 1987

and Mrs. Hensleigh Cecil Wedgwood (New York, New York) [sold, Wedgwood sale, Christie's , London, April 24, 1987, lot 106, to the J. Paul Getty Museum.]

Pictures Painted by J. Wright, of Derby (1785) (Cat. 14)
  • Mr. Robins's Rooms, (London), 1785
European Museum 1814 Exhibition (1814) (Cat. 432)
  • Unknown, 1814
European Museum 1817 Exhibition (1817) (Cat. 91)
  • Unknown, 1817
Joseph Wright of Derby 1734 - 1797 (1955) (Cat. 13)
  • Smith College Museum of Art, (Northampton), 1955
Joseph Wright of Derby 1734 - 1797 (March 1, 1960) (Cat. 13)
  • Durlacher Brothers, (New York), March 1 to March 1, 1960
Joseph Wright of Derby (February 7 to November 25, 1990) (Cat. 68)
  • Tate Britain, (London), February 7 to April 22, 1990
  • Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, (Paris), May 17 to July 23, 1990
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art, (New York), September 6 to November 25, 1990
L'Antiquité rêvée: innovations et résistances au XVIIIe siècle (December 2, 2010 to May 30, 2011) (Cat. 146)
  • Musée du Louvre, (Paris), December 2, 2010 to February 14, 2011
  • Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, March 20 to May 30, 2011

A Catalogue of Pictures, Painted by J. Wright, of Derby, and Exhibited at Mr. Robins's Rooms under the Great Piazza, Covent Garden (London: J. Barker, 1785) p. 6, no. 14.

The New Descriptive Catalogue and Plan of the European Museum, exh. cat. (London: The European Museum, 1814) p. 27, no. 432.

The Plan and New Descriptive Catalogue of the European Museum, King Street, St. James's Square (London: The European Museum, 1817) p. 13, no. 91.

Jewitt, Llewellynn. "Wedgwood and Etruria: A History of the 'Etruria Works,' Their Founder and Productions." The Art Journal 3 (1864) p. 231.

Jewitt, Llewellyn. The Wedgwoods: Being a Life of Josiah Wedgwood (London: Virtue Brothers and Co., 1865) p. 287.

Bemrose, William. The Life and Works of Joseph Wright, A.R.A., Commonly Called 'Wright of Derby' (London: Bemrose & Sons, 1885) pp. 21, 123.

Vines, Sherard. The Course of Classicism from the Tudor to the Victorian Age (London: Hogarth Press, 1930) p. 150.

Rosenblum, Robert. "The Origins of Painting: A Problem in the Iconography of Romantic Classicism." The Art Bulletin 39, no. 4 (December 1957) pp. 279- 90.

Nicolson, Bendict. Joseph Wright of Derby 1734-1797, exh. cat. (London: Tate Gallery, 1958) pp. 29-30.

Joseph Wright of Derby 1734-1797, exh. cat. (New York: Durlacher Brothers, 1960) unpaginated, no. 20.

Nicolson, Benedict. "Two Companion Pieces by Wright of Derby." The Burlington Magazine 104, no. 708 (March 1962) pp. 113-17.

Irwin, David. English Neoclassical Art: Studies in Inspiration and Taste (London: Faber & Faber, 1966) p. 80.

Nicolson, Benedict. Joseph Wright of Derby, Painter of Light. 2 vols. (London: Paul Mellon Foundation for British Art, 1968) vol. 1, pp. 16, 64-65, 73, 146-49, 152, 244, 278; no. 225; vol. 2, p. 153, pl. 242.

Watson, Ross. Joseph Wright of Derby. A Selection of Paintings from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, exh. cat. (Washington, D.C., National Gallery, 1969) p. 16, under no. 10.

Burke, J. T. The Iconography of the Enlightenment in English Art (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1970) pp. 19-20.

Tomory, Peter. The Life and Art of Henry Fuseli (New York: Praeger, 1972) p. 189.

Paulson, Ronald. Emblem and Expression: Meaning in English Art of the Eighteenth Century (London: Thames and Hudson, 1975) p. 200.

Burton, Anthony. Josiah Wedgwood: A Biography (London: A. Deutsch, 1976) pp. 189-90.

Wedgwood, Barbara and Hensliegh. The Wedgwood Circle 1730-1897: Four Generations of a Family and Their Friends (London: Studio Vista, 1980) opposite p. 35, ill.

Cossa, Frank. "Josiah Wedgwood: His Role as a Patron of Flaxman, Stubbs, and Wright of Derby." Ph.D. diss. (Rutgers University, 1982) pp. 219-74.

Cossa, Frank. "Josiah Wedgwood, Potter and Patron." Portfolio 5, no. 2 (March-April 1983) p. 119.

Lefrançois, Thierry. "Charles Coypel, peintre du roi (1694-1752)." Ph.D. diss. 3 vols.(Université de Paris IV, 1983) vol. 1, pp. 21, 45, 46, 141-42, no. D; vol. 2, pp. 374, 408, 462.

"Auctions." Tableau 9, no. 5 (March 1987) p. 88, ill.

Christie's Review of the Season (1987) p. 35, ill.

Christie, Manson, and Woods, London. Important English Pictures. April 24, 1987 pp. 162-63, lot 106, ill.

"Acquisitions/1987." The J. Paul Getty Museum Journal 16 (1988) p. 155, no. 20.

Egerton, Judy. Wright of Derby, exh. cat. (London: Tate Gallery, 1990) pp. 126, 130-31, 134, no. 68, ill.

Reynolds, Graham. "A Spirit of Independence." Times Literary Supplement, no. 4535 (March 2-8, 1990) p. 225.

Hayes, John. British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries (Washington, D.C., National Gallery: 1992) pp. 348-49.

Bermingham, Ann. "The Origin of Painting and the Ends of Art: Wright of Derby's 'Corinthian Maid.'" In Painting and the Politics of Culture: New Essays on British Art, 1700-1850. John Barrell, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) p. 146, n. 40.

Fredericksen, Burton B., et al. The Index of Paintings Sold in the British Isles during the Nineteenth Century. 4 vols. (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC CLIO, 1988- ) vol. 4 (1996), pt. 2, p. 914.

Lippincott, Louise. "Expanding on Portraiture: The Market, the Public, and the Hierarchy of Genres in Eighteenth-Century Britain." In The Consumption of Culture, 1600-1800. John Brewer and Ann Bermingham, eds. (London and New York: 1995) p. 85.

Jaffé, David. Summary Catalogue of European Paintings in the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1997) p. 137, ill.

Daniels, Stephen. Joseph Wright (London: Tate Gallery, 1999) pp. 54-56, ill.

Stafford, Barbara Maria. Visual Analogy: Consciousness as the Art of Connecting (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1999) pp. 83, 85, ill.

Wiedergeburt griechischer Götter und Helden: Homer in der Kunst der Goethezeit, exh. cat. (Stendal: Winckelmann-Museum, 1999) p. 87, under no. III.8, entry by Eva Hofstetter.

Günther, Hubertus. "Kult der Primitivität im Klassizismus." In Von der Geometrie zur Naturalisierung: Utopisches Denken im 18. Jahrhundert. Richard Saage and Eva-Maria Seng, eds. (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 1999) p. 69.

Impelluso, Lucia. Gods and Heroes in Art. Thomas Michael Hartmann, trans. (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003) p. 288, ill.

Sul filo della lana. Daverio, Philippe, ed. (Milan: Skira, 2005) p. 128.

Barker, Elizabeth. "Documents Relating to Joseph Wright 'of Derby' (1734-97)." Walpole Society 71 (2009) p., n. 23; pp. 105-08, 169, ill.

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Faroult, Guillaume, et al., eds. Antiquity Revived: Neoclassical Art in the Eighteenth Century, exh. cat. (Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, with Musée du Louvre and Gallimard, 2011) pp. 168-69, no. 91, ill., entry by Guillaume Faroult.

Uglow, Jenny. "Measureless Caverns: Joseph Wright and Virgil's Tomb." In Joseph Wright of Derby: Virgil's Tomb & the Grand Tour in Naples (London: Matthiesen Gallery, 2012) p. 48.

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