The subject of this composition is taken from Les Adventures de Télémaque by the French writer Francis de Salignac de La Motte Fénélon, first published in 1699, which amplified Homer's epic tale. Telemachus, the son of Odysseus and Penelope, sets out in search of his father when he fails to return home at the end of the Trojan War, accompanied by the goddess Athene, disguised as her old guardian Mentor. Fénélon relates how Telemachus was shipwrecked on the island of the goddess Calypso, where his father had earlier been imprisoned. Calypso falls in love with him and succeeds in delaying his departure by persuading him to relate his previous adventures. Telemachus eventually incurs Calypso's wrath by falling in love with Eucharis. This picture illustrates the scene from Fénélon's narrative when Telemachus is overwhelmed by sadness when the nymphs sing praises of the heroic deeds of his father. Calypso, sensing his grief, signals for them to stop singing.
Kauffmann recorded that she painted three versions of this composition in her Memorandum of Pictures. This picture is almost certainly identifiable with the version recorded in the memorandum as 'Rome. May, 1789....... for Mrs Brayer of London....... width 4 spans 4, height 3 spans 6, with figure representing Telemachus with Mentor in the Island of Calypso....... - 60 guineas. paid for on 2nd January' (Manners and Williamson, op.cit., p.156). It was conceived as a pendant to Bacchus Teaching the Nymphs to Make Verses which is recorded in the memorandum for August 1787, 'For Mrs Bryer of London...height 3 spans 6, width 4.6...from the Odes of Horace - 60 Guineas', for which the memorandum also records payment on 2 February 1778 (Manners and Williamson, op.cit., pp.153 and 171, and W. Wassyng Roworth, op.cit., p.79, illustration no. 64, p.197, note 85).
The first of the two other versions of this composition, both of which differ in small details from this picture, was commissioned by 'His Excellency Don Honorato Gaetani' and is recorded in the memorandum for September 1783 which records a payment of 'one hundred Neapolitan ounces, equating to approximately 120 Zecchini [sequins]' in January 1784 (Manners and Williamson, op. cit., p.143). This is presumably the picture now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, which measures 32¾ x 45 in. (83.2 x 114.3 cm.) (K. Baetjer, European paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1995, p.192, no. 25.110.187). The second was commissioned by the Duke of Courland and is recorded in the memorandum as being finished in 1788 for a price of 150 Zecchini (Manners and Williamson, op. cit., p.155). The latter signed 'Angelica Kauffman', measures 112.5 x 126.5 cm., and is now in the Býndner Museum of Art, Chur, Switzerland (Inv. no. 797).
We are grateful to Dr. Bettina Baumgartel and Professor Wendy Wassyng Roworth for their help in compiling this catalogue entry.