Sunday, August 15, 2010

John Linnell - The Return of Ulysses

Price Realized £171,650

signed and dated 'J Linnell.1848.' (lower right) and with inscription in Greek (lower right)
oil on canvas
49 x 73 in. (124.5 x 185.5 cm.)

Commissioned by Joseph Gillott, 1847.

London, Royal Academy, 1849, no. 443

This is an extremely rare instance of a large-scale painting by Linnell of a classical subject; most of his 'historical landscapes' were of scriptural subjects. The Greek inscription on the picture, translated for the 1849 Royal Academy catalogue, is from Book XIII of Homer's Odyssey and tells of Odysseus (or, as Linnell has it from the Latin, 'Ulysses') landing on his home island of Ithaca after his ten years of wandering following the Trojan War:

And first brought forth Ulysses: bed and all
That richly furnish't it; he still in thrall
Of all-subduing sleepe. Upon the sand
They set him softly down; and then, the strand
They strewed with all the goods he had bestowed
By the renowned Phoenicians

The rich Turnerian sky sets the dawn scene. The unusual subject (for Linnell) is the result of the commission from Joseph Gillott, the Birmingham pen-manufacturer and collector of contemporary British art, and in particular the works of J.M.W. Turner (another possible reason for the particularly Turnerian sky). Gillot had already commissioned a painting of this subject from William Collins who however died in 1847. Linnell was working on his picture throughout March, April and May of that year but did not complete it until August 1848. Gillott was sufficiently pleased with Linnell's work that he ordered a companion, but the two men were unable to agree terms.

Linnell's resort to Turner for the sky of this picture may have been partly the result of Turner's own choice of a Homeric subject for Ulysses deriding Polyphemus, shown at the Royal Academy in 1829 (London, National Gallery). Turner had also composed many compositions centring on a setting sun on the distant horizon, drawing the spectator into the picture, a device going back further to Claude in works such as The Departure of the Queen of Sheba, already to be seen in the National Gallery in London.

The picture had the distinction of being selected for the remarkable Art Treasures exhibition held at Manchester in 1857, in which works by both contemporary artists and the Old Masters were displayed.

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