A dangerous stranger

This is painting 14/100 for the year. It’s a large one – 1m square – so it’s taken a while. It may not be quite finished yet, but it’s getting close. The painting draws on William McGregor Paxton’s painting, Nausica, with various additions, modifications, omissions and re-interpretations according to my whim.

The original painting, attached below, is about a comparatively unexciting incident in the tale of Odysseus, when he arrives back in Greece without ship, shipmates or even a loincloth to call his own. He runs into the princess of the place who happens to be doing the laundry in the nude, together with her companions (as you do). In my re-interpretation the ladies are getting excited about a ship approaching their idyllic cove. I am imagining it more as Medea sighting Jason’s ship, the Argo, approaching her home town of Colchis, hence my title.

A dangerous stranger - oil on canvas 1m x 1m
A dangerous stranger – oil on canvas 1m x 1m
William McGregor Paxton, Nausica
William McGregor Paxton, Nausica

One Reply to “A dangerous stranger”

  1. My teen daughter is reading Homer’s Odyssey as a school assignment. I got on Google to call up images depicting scenes from the ancient epic, and to talk it through with her to keep her interest. That’s how I came across Paxton’s startling “Nausica,” and your delightful re-interpretation. The topic of Nausica’s encounter with Odysseus may prove to be an interesting conversation.

    Paxton’s depiction of the stark undress of Nausica and her youthful companions might be suspected as an exaggeration, but it’s true to Homer’s poetry. You describe Nausica as “the princess of the place who happens to be doing the laundry in the nude, together with her companions (as you do),” and that’s the truth. Homer rarely refers to his characters’ state of undress, even when it’s obvious. In Homer’s time, cloth was expensive to make, difficult to sew into clothes, and troublesome to mend and keep clean. Nudity was a fact of everyday life for folk living on the islands and sea coasts of the eastern Mediterranean. Clothes were dispensed with whenever possible, if consistent with common decency, for bathing, sleeping, laundering, hunting, fighting, fishing, swimming, competing in athletic games, or tossing a ball near seaside pools. So it’s remarkable, that in his lead up to the scene of Odysseus’ approach to Nausica, Homer tells us in so many words that they are both naked.

    Odysseus’ aspect, hulking, muscular, sea-tossed, sunburnt and haggard, his manhood masked by a scanty bough of underbrush, is frightful. His approach toward the band of innocent maidens, fills the situation, until then playful and relaxed, with menace and awkward sexual tension. The reaction of Nausica’s companions is natural: they scream, they run off in every direction, they seek cover and hide. In the circumstances, Nausica’s composure and equanimity as she faces the unexpected stranger is almost incredible. She knows she is exposed and vulnerable, but emboldened by Athena’s assurances, she affects a composed indifference. Like many a man with a tin ear before and since, Odysseus oafishly begins his address to Nausica by babbling on and on about how her physique and figure are the most beautiful he has ever espied in maiden womanhood, leaving her with no doubt about where his thoughts are focused. Somehow, Nausica has the moral courage and presence of mind to keep a calm demeanor. She summons her companions back to the clearing and bids them to give the stranger food and clean clothes (good thing her brothers’ tunics were among the laundry she brought for washing!). In the end, her genuine hospitality saves Odysseus and makes it possible for him to return safely home.

    Paxton’s painting captures the instant Odysseus first appears. One of the companions reflexively lifts a sheet, newly-laundered and left on the grass to dry, hoping in vain to shield Nausica’s bare form from view. Another maiden is focused on retrieving the ball still floating in the pond. The others show mounting levels of anxiety and distress. In the right margin, one girl starts to flee. Some of Paxton’s details must have been meant whimsically: his maidens, Nausica excepted, are depicted as wearing their hair gathered up in prim bun, their lips boldly rouged, like so many mid-century high-society debutantes caught out in some improbable frolic. Nausica alone shows self-possession, but even she looks momentarily startled by the stranger’s approach. The scene is suffused with uncertainty and foreboding.

    Your painting’s re-interpretation is, by contrast, evocative and delightful. Unteathered from the specifics of Nausica’s tale, the tableau of young maidens on a seaside redoubt, relaxing with a game of toss after having washed the laundry, reflects a mood that is cheerful and carefree, while the approach of a far-off ship stirs excitement and fills the girls with anticipation. The strangers bring news, trade, no doubt, perhaps danger also, but who knows? The possibilities are limitless and only time will sort them out.

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