Telemachus in Search of His Father

1793John FlaxmanEnglish, 1755–1826engraving6 11/16 in. × 9 1/4 in. (16.99 cm × 23.5 cm)

Gift of James A. Bergquist


John Flaxman was one of the leading proponents of the principles of neoclassicism in England. He is best known for his series of illustrations of the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, scenes of which these preparatory drawings and engravings illustrate. The Iliad and the Odyssey were two of the ancient Greek classics most commonly found on American bookshelves and read widely in translation. To illustrate the ancient epics, Flaxman created a new style based on the techniques of ancient Greek vase painters, relying heavily on outlines to create silhouetted figures and dramatically simplified settings. Flaxman’s prints, first published in 1793, were wildly popular and reprinted in several editions, often to illustrate translations of the epics. 

Flaxman began his artistic career working for the Wedgwood Foundry where, beginning in 1775, he created designs for porcelains that drew on ancient motifs found on Greek vases and gems as well as published engravings of the Greek vase collection of Sir William Hamilton (1730–1803), the British ambassador to Naples who formed one of the first significant collections of ancient vases. It may have been during this period that Flaxman first developed an appreciation for the potential of ceramic as a medium. Later, during Flaxman’s travels in Italy (1787–1794), he filled his sketchbooks with copies of ancient sculptures and mythological scenes. These sources provided stylistic inspiration for his innovative illustrations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which were completed while the artist was in Rome. The popularity of Flaxman’s illustrations coincided with an increasing desire for Greek vases as Grand Tour souvenirs among the English gentry, following the example set by Sir William Hamilton.

—Sean P. Burrus