The J. Paul Getty Museum

Penelope Unraveling Her Web

Object Details


Penelope Unraveling Her Web


Joseph Wright of Derby (English, 1734 - 1797)






Oil on canvas

Object Number:



106 × 131.4 cm (41 3/4 × 51 3/4 in.)

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Object Description

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) 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)
  • Mr. Robins's Rooms (London), 1785
European Museum 1814 Exhibition (1814)
  • Unknown, 1814
European Museum 1817 Exhibition (1817)
  • Unknown, 1817
Joseph Wright of Derby, 1734-1797 (January 1955)
  • Smith College Museum of Art (Northampton), January to January 1955
Joseph Wright of Derby, 1734 - 1797 (March 1 to March 26, 1960)
  • Durlacher Brothers (New York), March 1 to March 26, 1960
Joseph Wright of Derby (February 7 to November 25, 1990)
  • 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
Antiquity Revived: Neoclassical Art in the Eighteenth Century (December 2, 2010 to May 30, 2011)
  • Musée du Louvre (Paris), December 2, 2010 to February 14, 2011
  • Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, March 20 to May 30, 2011
Ulisse. L'arte e il mito (Ulysses. Art and Legend) (February 14 to October 31, 2020)
  • Musei San Domenico, Forli, February 14 to October 31, 2020

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.

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

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

Jewitt, Llewellynn. "Wedgwood and Etruria: A History of the 'Etruria Works,' Their Founder and Productions." The Art Journal 3 (August 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 English Classicism from the Tudor to the Victorian Age (London: Hogarth Press, 1930), p. 150.

Joseph Wright of Derby, 1734-1797, exh. cat. (Northampton: Smith College Museum of Art, 1955), unpaginated, no. 13.

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

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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: Andre Deutsch, 1976), pp. 189-90.

Wedgwood, Barbara, and Hensliegh Wedgwood. 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.

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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.

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