Minerva beautifying Ulysses

Minerva attending to Ulysses’ grooming - château de Fontainebleau - © RMN Grand Palais

Flemish Anonymous
Last quarter of the 16th century
H. 127 cm; L. 158 cm
Oil on Wood
Château de Fontainebleau, F 2019 6
Gallery of Splendours

This remarkable painting on wood depicts the forty-fifth episode in the Epic of Ulysses displayed on the walls of the gallery devoted to this hero at the château de Fontainebleau in the 16th century. The walls were painted with fifty-eight episodes from Homer’s Odyssey, whose translations were already popular under the reign of Francis I. The gallery was destroyed in 1738, but its décor had by then already inspired the greatest artists of the modern era such as Rubens, Vouet and Poussin. They were all struck by the narrative verve and the poetry of these compositions.

In this painting, Ulysses has returned to Ithaca and is preparing to look for Penelope, who stayed faithful to him and never stopped loving him. The goddess Minerva who has helped the hero throughout his journey, helps him wash in the foreground. The graceful body of the hero is covered with a large white cloth while behind him, nude followers are also preparing for the celebration. In a colonnade in the background, a flute player intones a gentle tune. The painter depicts the ground strewn with flowers, a sign of celebrations and the return of the spring. The composition is well-known because of a superb preparatory drawing by Francesco Primaticcio, held in Stockholm. The painter of this panel is faithful to the gradual change in perspective imagined by Primaticcio and sensitive to the graphic contours of the drapery, the thin curled lips and elaborate hairstyles, held in place by pearls typical of the Bolognese master. The lines are however less sketchy and some faces betray the influence of the painting style of Flemish masters such as Frans Floris. The colour palette used also evokes the northern artists installed at Fontainebleau who were familiar with the château’s décor in the second half of the 16th century, and formed the core of the Second School of Fontainebleau.

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