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Fifty Days at Iliam: Shield of Achilles

Cy Twombly, American, 1928 - 2011

Made in Italy, Europe


Oil, oil crayon, and graphite on canvas

6 feet 3 1/2 inches × 67 inches (191.8 × 170.2 cm)

© Cy Twombly Foundation

Curatorial Department:
Contemporary Art

* Gallery 284, Modern and Contemporary Art, second floor (Gray Charitable Trust Gallery I)

Accession Number:

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

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Additional information:
  • 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.

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