Tischbein was a leading figure in the German community in Settecento Rome. He was Goethe’s choice as cicerone when he arrived there in 1786 and went on to paint the celebrated portrait of Goethe in the Campagna (Städel Museum, 1157) in 1787. Like Goethe and his fellow German compatriot Johann Winckelmann, Tischbein was consumed by a fascination with the classical world, and this ultimately found expression in an ambitious graphic work entitled Homer, nach Antiken gezeichnet (‘Homer, drawn after the Antique’) published upon his return to Germany in 1801.
Tischbein portrays Ulysses here in the format of a robed portrait bust, depicting him almost as if he were a living monument. Ulysses was idolized for his bravery, fidelity and above all resourcefulness, and was the basis for Homer’s second epic poem. Tischbein said of the Odyssey ‘So fond am I of that book that I long nurtured the wish that those around me on my deathbed should place the Iliad on my brow and the Odyssey on my breast.’ (Max Kunze, ‘Homers Odyssee und der Rückzug ins Private’, Wiedergeburt griechischer Götter und Helden. Homer in der Kunst der Goethezeit, Stendal, 1999, exh. cat., p. 143) In the late 18th century, the Odyssey was considered the ultimate Fürstenspiegel (‘mirror for princes’). In 1800, announcing the forthcoming publication of the set of illustrations of Homer, Tischbein wrote, ‘no other poet has done so much for the education of mankind as Homer’ (Allgemeiner Literarischer Anzeiger, Leipzig, 1800, vol. 1, no. 189, columns 1857–58). The planning of these illustrations occupied the artist throughout his last years in Italy and he concentrated, working from busts, statues, intaglios and reliefs on creating the greatest possible likeness to antique models. The engraving used for the frontispiece of the ‘Zweites Heft’ (second part) of this Homeric encyclopedia was a bust of Ulysses, based on this painting, executed five years earlier.
Goethe noted that ‘Tischbein is well versed in the various types of stone used both by the ancient and modern builders. He has studied them thoroughly and his artist’s eye and his pleasure in the physical texture of things has greatly helped him’ (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Italian Journey [1786–1788], New York, 1962, p. 140). This is immediately apparent in the care which Tischbein lavished on the painting of the worn, chipped, rusticated stone surrounding the bust of Ulysses. In the later engraving, the figure appears against a dark background with no stone border. Our painting was executed in Naples where Tischbein stayed from 1788 until 1799, when the French invasion prompted his return to Germany.
A replica of this painting formerly in the collection of Albert Nyáry is now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest (76.1).❖