Medea by Frederick Sandys
Accession number: 1925P105
Frederick Sandys’ oil painting Medea is a divisive painting: now as when it was first exhibited, opinions are divided as to its beauty and power. Sandys, like the other Pre-Raphaelites, was drawn to mythical, dangerous femme fatales, and Medea is one of the most frightening. Her violent story is most famously delineated in Euripides’ play, where she is depicted as a tragic victim who brings about more tragedy. A sorceress whose ancestry includes gods, she marries Jason, and these events are written about by Ovid and Seneca, among others. In Euripides’ version, which begins after the couple marry, Jason has deserted Medea for another woman, Glauce, and Medea, driven mad with jealousy and despair, murders Glauce, and her own two sons, to revenge herself upon Jason. Much is made of the tragedy and pathos of Medea’s love of her children and sorrow at their death in Euripides’ play, as the tragic mother says her last farewell to her sons:
I wish you happiness, but not here in this world.
What is here your father took. O how good to hold you!
How delicate the skin, how sweet the breath of children!
Go, go! I am no longer able, no longer
To look upon you. I am overcome by sorrow.
I know indeed what evil I intend to do,
But stronger than all my afterthoughts is my fury,
Fury that brings upon mortals the greatest evils.
Medea is a strong woman, who addresses the women of Corinth on the wrongs men do to women, lamenting the restricted lives they must lead, and their fate when abandoned. In Sandys’ picture, she is enchanting a cloak which will destroy Jason’s new wife, Glauce, by bursting into flames. The expression on Medea’s face is what gives the picture its power: she looks not at what she is doing, but away out of the picture, as if frantically picturing the damage she can do. There is pathos and sadness as well as fury and even madness in her look, which may account for its rejection from the Royal Academy and the view of many that it verged on indecency.
It is a picture that engages with a very specific moment in the drama, then, depicting Medea as Sandys imagined her from his reading of the story. Yet his work also inspired: Alfred Bate Richards, after seeing the painting, wrote Medea: A Poem (London: Chapman & Hall, 1869). Richards was a writer and journalist, who knew Thackeray and Dickens as well as Dante Gabriel Rossetti. His interest is in describing and providing another dimension to Sandys’ work: ‘How far the story of Medea is a fable is immaterial to my treatment of Medea as a human being … I have dealt with a great artist’s conception of a flesh-and-blood Medea…’
The vivid descriptive passages conjure shades of Medea, both woman and picture, particularly in describing the horror of her life and its tragic events. The tale is not really outlined; it is a lyrical outpouring imagining the state of being Medea, whom he describes as ‘The stately form of Queenlike Tragedy’, and it is this ‘form’ and its soul with which he is concerned, alongside a contrasting of pagan and Christian, in terms of civilisation and morality.
Unsexed, unholy and abhorred
Men still shall shudder at thy name
Who blench not ‘neath the headsman’s sword
Mother of foul infanticide,
Curst parricidal daughter, bride
And toy of gilded shame.
Repeatedly Richards returns to the picture itself, sometimes addressing it and sometimes Medea, sometimes a watching Chorus, in an ekphrastic performance of immediacy. There is a clear fascination with the horror of her act: he dwells on the fear of the children, the unnatural act of killing them, and implies he would never have considered writing such a ghastly tale if it weren’t for Sandys’ painting. He is specific, calling on aspects of Sandys’ picture in detail, ‘reading’ into the painting and putting it into words.
Medea is a topic clearly of interest to the Pre-Raphaelites; William Morris’s long poem The Life and Death of Jason (1867) also describes Medea, her frantic sense of abandonment when Jason falls in love with Glauce, and the moment when she wreaks her revenge with spells and poison:
She poured into a well-wrought bowl of brass
The thing that in the phial hidden was,
And therein, fold by fold, the linen laid, (508-10)
Morris’s Medea seems less frantic, more resigned; this is also the case with John William Waterhouse’s Jason and Medea (1907), and Evelyn de Morgan’s Medea (1889). Sandys’ Medea demonstrates the hallmarks of many of his other female figures: she is desperate, oblivious to all, and unhinged.