Fifty Days at Iliam

Cy Twombly, American, 1928 - 2011

Made in United States, North and Central America


In ten parts: oil, oil crayon, and graphite on canvas

See individual object records for dimensions.

Curatorial Department:
Contemporary Art

* Gallery 185, Modern and Contemporary Art, first floor

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
Gift (by exchange) of Samuel S. White 3rd and Vera White, 1989

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In the summer of 1977, Cy Twombly began working on a "painting in ten parts" based on Alexander Pope's translation of Homer's Iliad. Completed in 1978 and collectively titled Fifty Days at Iliam, the works evoke incidents from Homer's epic poem in Twombly's characteristic synthesis of words and images. The ten large canvases follow one another much like a developing narrative. They are ordered as follows: Shield of Achilles (on view in Gallery 184); Heroes of the Achaeans; Vengeance of Achilles; Achaeans in Battle; The Fire that Consumes All Before It; Shades of Achilles, Patroclus, and Hector; House of Priam; Ilians in Battle; Shades of Eternal Night; Heroes of the Ilians (on view in Gallery 185).

Additional information:
  • PublicationPhiladelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections

    Cy Twombly's Fifty Days at Iliam is a rare type of work for a twentieth-century artist--a painting that illustrates a narrative. Long inspired by classical antiquity, Twombly here pays homage to what is perhaps the definitive narrative of Western literature: Homer's Iliad, the tragic story of the final fifty days of the Trojan War, probably written before 700 B.C. Twombly's series in ten parts progresses from the fiery moment when the Greek warrior Achilles is inspired to join the fight against Troy (Iliam) to an almost blank canvas filled with the silence of death. The installation develops in both diachronic and synchronic fashion: the story unfolds chronologically, while simultaneously one wall presents a predominantly Greek mood, passionate and explosive, as the facing wall depicts an essentially Trojan attitude, more contemplative and cool. Twombly uses the visual language he had derived over twenty years earlier, full of scrawling marks, seemingly random brushstrokes, and legible numbers and letters, to create his own tribute to an anchor of Western culture. Ann Temkin, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections (1995), p. 340.
  • PublicationTwentieth-Century Painting and Sculpture in the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    Cy Twombly has chosen to spend much of his life in Italy and to ground his art in the history of Western culture rather than the imagery of contemporary America. In Fifty Days at Iliam, Twombly addressed a defining work of classical literature: Homer's Iliad, the epic recitation of the final fifty days of the Trojan War, probably written before 700 B.C. Undertaking a project of unprecedented scope in his work, Twombly created his own interpretation of Homer's narrative in a monumental ten-part painting. He relied on the sensuous visual language he had developed over the past twenty-five years, full of scrawling marks, clumps of paint straight from the tube, drips, erasures, and legible numbers and letters. His vocabulary ranges from lushly erotic organic shapes to hieroglyphics of nearly invisible subtlety.

    Twombly stipulated the spatial configuration of the ten large canvases in a presentation that was sequential as well as logical thematically. An antechamber contains the emblematic painting Shield of Achilles, the armor made for the Greek warrior by the gods, with energy forces drawn from the four corners of the universe. Nine paintings in the adjoining gallery present the chronological unfolding of the story, progressing from the scene of Achilles pivotal decision to join the fight against Troy (Iliam) to an almost blank canvas imbued with the silence of death. Twombly designed the installation so that the four paintings on one side of the room present a predominantly Greek mood, passionate and explosive, while the four across from them embody the Trojan character, contemplative and cool. Presiding over the gallery from the far wall is the monumental Shades of Achilles, Patroclus, and Hector, an elegiac salute to the three fallen heroes of the war. Twentieth Century Painting and Sculpture in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2000), p. 133.

* Works in the collection are moved off view for many different reasons. Although gallery locations on the website are updated regularly, there is no guarantee that this object will be on display on the day of your visit.