Romare Howard Bearden
American, 1914–1988
The Return of Odysseus (Homage to Pintoricchio and Benin)

Collage comprised of cut-and-pasted papers, with graphite and touches of brush and black and gray wash, on wood panel
1,118 x 1,422 mm
Mary and Leigh Block Fund, 1977.127

Romare Beaden’s collage portrays the climax of The Odyssey, an epic poem by the ancient Greek author known as Homer. The poem tells of King Odysseus’s dangerous struggle to return home to the Greek island of Ithaca after the Trojan War. While Odysseus is away, his wife, Penelope, endures numerous suitors who compete for her affection. To ward them off, she begins to weave a shroud and promises to marry one of the suitors when the garment is completed. Each night, however, she unravels what she has woven during the day. Just as the suitors discover Penelope’s scheme, Odysseus sails home, kills all of the suitors, reunites with Penelope, and rules Ithaca once again.

Depicted in Bearden’s collage is the long-awaited moment of Odysseus’s return. Penelope sits on the left, reaching out her arms to greet her loyal son, Telemachus, who has brought back his father. Barely visible and disguised as a beggar, Odysseus enters the doorway at the upper right with his right arm raised. Between Penelope and her suitors, who lurk on the right, stands her loom. A little girl by Penelope’s side knits, while a cat plays with the yarn. The sails of Odysseus’s ship are visible through the window.

In the title of this image, Bearden pays respect not only to ancient Greece but also to the artistic heritage of Europe and Africa. The composition was inspired by a fresco executed by Italian Renaissance artist Pintoricchio. Here Bearden recast Pintoricchio’s figures as black and showed them in profile, in the manner of sculpture from the ancient African kingdom of Benin. At the same time, Bearden's collage technique, consisting of fragments of printed photographs cut from contemporary books and magazines, was influenced by early 20th-century European Cubism. By drawing from multiple artistic and cultural sources, Bearden suggested the universality of Odysseus’s story.