This particular piece demonstrates perfectly of how the artist had embraced the techniques of the Pre-Raphaelite movement by the time that he entered the mature part of his career. We see many elements of that within this painting, although there are other influences on show here too, such as with the relaxed brushwork which some believe bears the hallmarks of the French school. Waterhouse would study literature and poetry throughout his lifetime and this would provide the inspiration for this painting, just as it did for so many other artworks from across the full span of his career. Several books of poetry were even uncovered from his possessions, with sketches placed alongside some of the texts, giving us a visual representation of how closely aligned these two items were. The two main sources of inspiration that he used were classical mythology and more recent British poetry, with this painting have been inspired by the former.
The story in front of us here tells of loyalty and fidelity, when Penelope was hounded by potential suitors who wished to marry her. She had remained faithful throughout her marriage to Odysseus despite his constant separation from her as he travelled the waves. His presumed death meant she would now marry someone else, but this idea did not grab her with any great enthusiasm. The painting depicts men desperately attempting to get to the front of the queue whilst she calmly continues to work at her loom, trying to deflect this attention as much as possible. In the end she was persuaded to set a challenge to decide who would next take her hand. Amusingly, Odysseus eventually managed to return to her side and slaughters all those who had harrassed her in his absence.
Waterhouse worked in a pseudo Neo-Classical style at times in his career and this approach proved popular within the UK for a number of years in the 19th century. Eventually, it would start to fall out of fashion, forcing some to abandon it for alternative styles whilst others continued on stubbornly. One highly respected artist who worked predominantly within that movement was Dutch artist Lawrence Alma Tadema who lived and worked in the UK for much of his life. Amongst his finest creations were Spring, A Coign of Vantage and Ask Me No More. A quick browse of his career will unveil huge influences from classical civilisations, particularly in fashion and architecture. Waterhouse would feature both himself in the earlier part of his career before later choosing to take inspiration from British poetry and culture instead as his work became somewhat more modern in style. Even that was starting to lose popularity, though, as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood became older and the movement started to run out of steam.