Ulysses at the Table of Circe: Plate 16 of The Odyssey of Homer Engraved from the Compositions of John Flaxman R.A., 1805
John Flaxman (British, 1755–1826)
Printmaker: James Parker (British, 1769–1822)
17 5/8 x 10 1/4 in. (19.5 x 26.1 cm)
Gift of Harvey Smith, 1977 (1977.595.53)
John Flaxman, the finest British sculptor of the late eighteenth century, achieved international acclaim for his spare, outline illustrations to the works of Homer, Aeschylus, and Dante, which he prepared during seven years' residence in Rome (1787–94), where he also directed Wedgwood's ceramics studio. Flaxman's distinctive linear drawing style, with its bold rejection of Renaissance and Baroque methods of rendering perspective and volume, is now regarded as the epitome of the Neoclassical style. For Flaxman's contemporaries, his line drawings appeared primitive, and therefore in keeping with his archaic subject matter.
The present scene illustrates a passage in Homer's Odyssey in which the sorceress Circe offers the hero a magic drink that had previously turned his companions into swine. Ulysses, however, is protected from the effects of Circe's potion by an antidote from Hermes. As Alexander Pope described the scene in his 1726 translation:
The table in fair order spread,
They heap the glittering canisters with bread:
Viands of various kinds allure the taste,
Of choicest sort and savour, rich repast!
Circe in vain invites the feast to share;
Absent I ponder, and absorb'd in care;
While scenes of woe rose anxious in my breast,
The queen beheld me, and these words address'd:
"'Why sits Ulysses silent and apart,
Some hoard of grief close harbour'd at his heart
Untouch'd before thee stand the cates divine,
And unregarded laughs the rosy wine.
Can yet a doubt or any dread remain,
When sworn that oath which never can be vain?'
"I answered: 'Goddess! human is my breast,
By justice sway'd, by tender pity press'd:
Ill fits it me, whose friends are sunk to beasts,
To quaff thy bowls, or riot in thy feasts.
Me would'st thou please? for them thy cares employ,
And them to me restore, and me to joy.'"
Book X: Adventures with Aeolus, The Laestrygons, and Circe