This alluring, unpublished painting by Jacob Jordaens depicts the meeting of Odysseus and Nausicaa on the island of Phaeacia as told by Homer in book 6 of the Odyssey. It is to be connected with the tapestry cycle of the Life of Odysseus designed by Jordaens about the middle of the 1630s. Nothing is known about the circumstances that gave rise to the series, of which nine designs -- in one form or another -- are known. Not all of these may have actually been woven, for only seven pieces have survived. No tapestry is recorded after the present composition; however, unusually, two other pictures by Jordaens are related -- one closely -- to it. The meeting of Odysseus and Nausicaa is the opening of a serene episode in Homer's account of the hero's adventurous return to his native Ithaca after the fall of Troy. The shipwrecked Odysseus had been woken by a ball game, played by Nausicaa -- the daughter of Alcinous, the king of the island -- and her handmaidens after they had completed their laundry work. Naked but for a leafy branch plucked and worn for modesty's sake, he had emerged from the bushes where he had slept, like a mountain lion, so terrifying Nausicaa's companions who 'shrank in fear'; she 'alone the daughter of Alcinous kept her place'. Odysseus was struck by her beauty and exclaimed 'amazement holds me as I look on thee' -- and then he beseeched her to find him clothing. The princess called to her 'fair tressed' servants: 'Stand by maidens: whither do you flee at the sight of a man'.
This is the turn of events which Jordaens has telescoped into a moving, colourful scene: Odysseus naked but for his covering of leaves, implores the magnificently attired Nausicaa, while between them a handmaiden flees in terror and in the crowd of servants one still wrings out wet laundry. Drawn up behind the princess is an ornate carriage burnished with gold-leaf. Alexander Pope in his early 18th century, free translation, here caught Jordaens's intention for Nausicaa had earlier been urged in a dream: 'the royal car at early dawn obtain. In pomp ride forth; for pomp becomes the great/And majesty derives a grace from state'.
Noteworthy is the prominent awning on the carriage which has been pushed up to provide a view of the kneeling hero. The English description of the carriage as having an awning is referred to as an alternative reading of the Greek by A.T. Murray in his Loeb translation of 1919; this textual difference of opinion could well have been current in Jordeans's time.
Many of the protagonists seem to have been familiar members of the artist's cast of actors. Jordaens had for instance earlier made a sketch in oils of the woman holding the brim of her straw hat on a sheet now in Bucharest (fig. 1) and had introduced her as a passenger on the ferry boat in the St Peter finding the Tribute Money at Copenhagen. The old woman beside her is a character he had long since borrowed from Rubens, and she had previously been given room as a spectator in the Satyr and the Peasant at Gothenburg. An oil sketch of a young woman looking upwards at Stuttgart was used as a modello for Saint Apollonia in the altarpiece of 1628 in the Antwerp St Augustine's Church before being selected here for the handmaiden gasping with astonishment beneath the awning in the carriage. The similarity of the faces of Nausicaa and Syrinx in the Pan and Syrinx at Brussels suggests that the artist had used a study of the same model. The three-quarters view of the alert bay horse was also a handy motif, which had been used on several occasions (see, for example, Jacob Jordaens's preparatory drawing for the Riding School tapestry series, Gentleman and lady with a groom saddling a horse, circa 1640-45, private collection).
Jordaens is thought to have designed eight tapestry series, though the extant preparatory work is far less coherent and more sporadic than that by Rubens for his four tapestry cycles. Although the former relished his portrayals of domestic celebrations, four of his tapestry series concerned historic or mythic heroes: Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, Achilles and Odysseus. These are fully discussed by K. Nelson, Jacob Jordaens, Design for Tapestry, Turnhout, 1998.
By the sixteenth century Odysseus was seen as the model for the wise ruler. The poet George Chapman, early in the following century, saw his example as having a more universal elevance: the hero was the 'much sustaining, patient, heavenly man'. By then he was commonly portrayed in European art; his adventures had been famously depicted by Annibale Carracci and previously designed by Primaticcio in the Galerie d'Ulysse at Fontainebleau.
Jordaens's choice of Odysseus may have been stimulated by the interest taken in the Galerie d'Ulysse at the time by his senior colleague Rubens. Two of his younger associates, Theodoor van Thulden and Abraham van Diepenbeck, made copies of it in the 1630s, van Thulden's series of etchings was published in 1633. Indeed Rubens himself had earlier taken up the Ulysses/Nausicaa theme; but his interpretation in the Palazzo Pitti is very different to that provided here by Jordaens. There were sufficient translations from the Greek for Jordaens to make a detailed study of Homer's epic. This bore fruit in his unique choice of some subjects which he could only have gleaned from a reading of it.
However, the subject of Odysseus and Nausicaa was popular; indeed Jordaens could have known Pieter Lastman's two treatments of it painted in Amsterdam in the early 1620s. Four renderings by Jordaens are recorded in eighteenth-century auction sales in the northern Netherlands and Paris alone, so it is perhaps not surprising that two others are known today. One, offered at Christie's, London (8 July 1994, lot 115), now in the Noordbrabants Museum, shows a smaller gathering of handmaidens and hints only at the carriage (Nelson, no. 12b). The other, currently with Jean-Luc Baroni Ltd., is closely related in size and composition to the present lot but differs in its paper (laid on canvas) support and medium (Nelson, no. 12a; and Jean-Luc Baroni Ltd., [catalogue by D. Garstang], Jacob Jordaens, Odysseus and Nausicaa: A Rediscovered Cartoon for a Tapestry, 2nd edition, 2012; fig. 2). In that work the artist widened the composition at a later date by introducing additional space between Odysseus and the fearful maid, whereas the composition here under offer has been widened at the left hand edge. There are a good many other differences, chiefly the result of pentimenti in the present painting. These are clearly visible using high resolution digital infrared imaging (fig. 3). The most significant pentimento is in the area of the horse, whose head near the centre of the painting was originally positioned lower, with the top of his head aligning towards Nausicaa's neck and chin. A second horse is faintly visible to the left of this, above the handmaiden's head in front of the proper left arm of the figure above her. Nausicaa's headdress was originally fuller and her robe was probably once more elaborate. Other pentimenti include Odysseus's face, which was probably originally more tilted back and facing up, with minor adjustments to his hands and proper right shoulder, and perhaps his lower back. Other areas of adjustment include the canopy and originally a second face was visible in the centre of the canopy. (For a full technical report written by Dr. Nicholas Eastaugh, please contact the department.) As the details of the composition of the Baroni cartoon are altered in this canvas, it would seem that this came second in the artistic process, but may have preceded the artist's additions to the cartoon.
There is uncertainty about the purpose of both works. It has been suggested that the Baroni cartoon was executed as a 'petit patron' and was thus part of the tapestry making discipline. The newly discovered painting can be compared with the Levade under the auspices of Mars (sold in these Rooms in 1965 and acquired by the National Gallery of Canada). This is on a slightly smaller canvas and has been described as a modello for a tapestry in the Riding School series. But rather than a modello, it may well be that both were intended for a particular client or as demonstration pieces.
Originally on canvas on a smaller scale and equally finished, is the Odysseus and Polyphemus in Moscow. This treatment of a subject uniquely selected by Jordaens is also part of the Life of Odysseus series. Such a painting was owned by Rubens and was offered as part of his collection following his death in 1640. His ownership of it seems to be a recognition of Jordaens's beautiful depiction of Homer's epic.