With this sculpture, Cavelier, awarded the Prix de Rome in 1842, depicts a central narrative of Homer's Odyssey: during Odysseus' twenty year absence, Penelope, despite the numerous pretenders to the throne of Ithaca who pressured her to chose a new spouse from among their ranks, remains faithful to her husband.
In order to remain evasive, she declares that she will make her choice once the weaving of her father-in-law Laertes' burial shroud has been completed.
Every night for three years the Queen undoes the work completed that day, until one of her serving women reveals her ploy. This episode of Homer's tale met with considerable success among artists up until the end of the 19th century, primarily in paintings.
This marble sculpture was first presented in 1848 at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts among the works produced by the residents and received high praise from the jury of the Académie de France in Rome. It subsequently triumphed at the 1849 Salon, receiving a first-class medal and a medal of honour.
The critics were unanimous, as Théophile Gautier later recalls: “With his Penelope Asleep, Mr Cavelier has established himself as one of the greatest modern sculptors. This figure, slumped in her chaste cloths, succumbed to the fatigue of labour, with the modest and severe grace of the glorious days of Antiquity; thus the work was a true success: not a single contradictory review clouded the chorus of praise: artist and society people were equally captivated” (Les Beaux-Arts en Europe, 1855).
The cloths are indeed of remarkable virtuosity, rarely achieved in sculpture at that time, combining naturalism and a reference to Greco-Roman art with a tempered romantic sensitivity.
Cavelier drew his inspiration from antique statuary throughout his career. His Penelope was based on a statue at the Capitoline Museum in Rome.
The work was purchased in 1849 by the Duke of Luynes, archaeologist, collector, patron and a major figure in the July Monarchy, for his Château de Dampierre residence which he aspired to transform into a true “sanctuary of beauty”.
It remained there until 2016, when this key work in French sculpture from the second half of the 19th century joined the collections of the Musée d'Orsay.