This ink drawing is a copy after a drawing (no.128381) in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, which previously considered to be by the celebrated Dutch artist Rembrandt (1606-1669) but is presently attributed to one of his pupils and good friend Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1621-1674). The New York drawing is thought to be dated to around 1640 when van den Eeckhout was at the end of his apprenticeship with Rembrandt and his drawing style and choice of subject was still greatly influenced by his master. The copyist of the Liverpool drawing has misunderstood the background tent, in front of which the ancient Greek hero Achilles stands, and has turned it into a hovering cloud. Many of the other features of the Liverpool drawing are schematically drawn and the tall figure on the right has been repeatedly scribbled over with hatched lines as if crossed out.
In the recent past the scene has been thought to show Thetis urging her son the ancient Greek hero Achilles to re-join the battle against Troy, from which he had withdrawn grief-stricken after the death of his close friend Patroclus. Achilles is presumed to be standing in the centre facing his mother Thetis, who is holding a sword. The rest of his newly forged armour and helmet is shown in the foreground to the right, with the tall figure of Hephaestus, blacksmith to the Greek gods, towering over it on the right. Thetis persuades her son to return to the battle and avenge Patroclus by promising him that she will care for the body and not allow it to rot away.
But the Piepont Morgan Library identifes the theme as being that of Achilles and his captured Trojan slave-girl Briseis, whom the Greek army commander Agamemnon demands for himself. The scene traditionally takes place in front of Achilles tent and the confrontation involves Achilles drawing his sword in front of Agamemnon. However, the figure on the left appears to be female not male.
The New York drawing was in the English collection of the 4th Earl of Warwick (1818-1893), the majority of whose drawings came from the collection of his uncle Sir Charles Greville (1763-1832) a younger relation of Charles Francis Greville (1749-1810), a contemporary and political friend of William Roscoe, who owned this copy drawing (WAG 1995.286) by 1814. So the copyist could have been British, but is more likely to have been a 17th or 18th-century Dutch artist as there was another copy of the original drawing (no.13731) in Berlin in 1930.
Achilles’ reaction to the death of Patroclus has led many to interpret their relationship as being greater than close friends. Though both men had relationships with women, the love between the two men is presented in many classical texts as outstripping these affairs. Many ancient texts penned in the 4th and 5th centuries, including Plato’s ‘Symposium’, present the pair explicitly as lovers. It was not unusual in Ancient Greece for men to have sexual and loving relationships with both men and women. Indeed, it was taken for granted that there was an erotic dimension to male relationships. The two warriors have more recently become symbolic of same-sex love and desire. In 2004 the writer Madeline Miller, won the Orange Prize for Fiction for her novel ‘The Song of Achilles’. It focuses on the pair’s journey as a tale of sexual awakening, where they discover their sexuality.