These characters come from the 1699 French novel Les Aventures de Télémaque that fills a gap in Homer’s Odyssey, telling of Ulysses son Telemachus’ educational travels with a mentor that turns out to be the goddess of wisdom Minerva. The author Fénelon tells of how Telemachus fell in love with this beautiful nymph Eucharis but his duty as a son demanded that he leave her and find his missing father.
In this scene they say goodbye, an image that David makes so powerful and real with a warm white light that sets their light skin aglow. Telemachus stares straight out at us, his face still babyish and framed by blonde curls, like a lamb who doesn’t know to be scared as it’s naively lead toward slaughter. That’s not what happens in this story though. Telemachus is rewarded for sacrificing in the name of his father, and at the end of the story he learns his mentor has been the goddess of wisdom this whole time and he reaches Ithaca safely and smarter and stronger than ever.
Eucharis wraps her arms gently around his neck, leaning her head on his shoulder, eyes downcast because she knows she’s about to be left behind and there’s nothing she can do about it. Telemachus has his right hand placed gently on her leg as a temporary consolation prize, holding his spear in the other hand, fingers spread across it as he leans back and acknowledges the viewer with his sad blue-eyed stare. A skinny ghost of a dog peeks his head out of the darkness in the right-hand corner, staring up at his master as another faithful admirer, but perhaps one that actually gets to come along.
This painting currently belongs to the Getty Museum in LA whose website reads, “David painted The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis during his exile in Brussels. The use of saturated reds and blues contrasted with flesh-tones and combined with a clarity of line and form typifies the Neoclassical style, which is characteristic of David’s late history paintings.”
For corrections and additions to my telling of this French novel, please email me. I did a good amount of research but unfortunately I can’t speak French and may have got a few things wrong.