At the beginning of the twentieth century few progressive sculptors scaled up their work from small models, preferring the look of spontaneity and vitality produced by direct carving or modelling. Bourdelle however retained the practice of beginning a major project with a maquette and refining the sculpture through successive stages. Penelope-the ever-faithful wife of Odysseus who waited ten years for her husband to return from the Trojan War-took Bourdelle almost as long to complete. The sculpture was developed in four stages, through two small studies in 1905 and 1907, and a half-size version of 1909 (120 cm height) before the monumental sculpture was completed in 1912, in time to be exhibited in the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux Arts. The Australian National Gallery holds all but the 1909 study.
In the first study of 1905 Penelope carries a spindle which alludes to the ruse she employed to forestall her many suitors during Odysseus' long absence; she told them that she could not choose between them until she had finished work on a tapestry, but what she wove by day she unravelled by night. The 1905 study was first cast in bronze by the Valsuanni Foundry, Paris, in 1977 in an edition of eight and two artist's proofs, of which the Gallery's is the first.
In the second study for Penelope, of 1907, the spindle is omitted, as it is in all subsequent versions, and the height increased to 61 cm. This study was cast in bronze by the Susse Foundry, Paris, in 1978, in an edition of eight and two artist's proofs, of which the Gallery's is the first.
Like the smaller versions, the final, monumental Penelope of 1912 was cast in bronze in an edition of eight with two artist's proofs. The Gallery's is the first of the two proofs and was cast by the Susse Foundry, Paris, in 1973. Further casts from this edition are in the following collections: the Kroeller-Muller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands; the Israel Museum, Jerusalem; the Honolulu Academy of Art, Hawaii; Musée Bourdelle, Paris; and the collection of Madame Dufet Bourdelle, Nemours, France. A second variant, in plaster, is located at the Musée Bourdelle, Paris.
The facial features of Penelope are commonly thought to be modelled on those of Bourdelle's first wife, Stephanie Van Parys. Rhodia Dufet Bourdelle, the artist's daughter and Director of the Musée Bourdelle, further identifies the figure with an undated drawing inscribed 'Sevastos devant les devins Hindous' (Sevastos before the Hindu gods), which shows a female in a flowing dress in a pose similar to that of the sculpture. The figure in the drawing was Cleopatre Sevastos, Bourdelle's pupil in 1905, the year he began work on the project and, after divorcing van Parys in 1910, his second wife. According to Rhodia Dufet Bourdelle:while visiting a London museum with her master [Sevastos], fell in ecstasy before the Hindou sculptures and that is what the drawing represents . . . Then, when he had the idea of transforming that contemplation into Penelope's waiting for the return of Ulysses, father made it in sculpture in the likeness of his wife . . . Stephanie Van Parys... so that father's Penelope appears like the synthesis of his two wives!1
Dufet Bourdelle also noted that 'as was often the case, he was inspired by everyday life, and the title (to which he gave but little importance) came afterwards'.2
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.84.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra