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.)

See more

See less

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)
European Museum 1817 Exhibition (1817) (Cat. 91)
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

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

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

Faroult, Guillaume, et al. L'Antiquité rêvée: innovations et résistances au XVIIIe siècle, exh. cat. (Paris: Musée du Louvre, with Gallimard, 2010), pp. 369, 434-36, no. 146, ill., entry by Guillaume Faroult.

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.