Medea Contemplating the Murder of her Children

WAG 4042


One of a group of 18 known as the ‘Liverpool Cartoons’, this drawing presents the story of Medea, as depicted by the Greek playwright Euripides. Abandoned by her husband, the hero Jason, after she had helped him win the Golden Fleece, Medea murdered their children. There are several drawings which show Romney's various approaches to depicting the story of Medea, which he began to study either in Rome or immediately after his return to London in 1775. Contemporary sketchbooks in the Walker's collection (WAG 10850) and at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge show an alternative composition with Medea in profile to the left. This evolved further in drawings showing her departing in a chariot with the body of one of her sons slung over her back. The features of Romney's muse Emma Hart (1765-1815) have been identified in one of these last drawings and in the Walker Cartoon. ‘Cartoon’ here refers to the word in its old sense of a preparatory, full-size drawing for a later, finished painting. They are constructed of several pieces of handmade paper pieced together to create a large surface on which to work. The 18 cartoons in the Walker’s collection are the only ones surviving of groups of drawings Romney made exploring scenes from literature and mythology. It is likely that Romney explored the cartoon form over a period of ten years, if not longer, from about 1775. Romney’s son John (1757-1832) wrote to William Roscoe (1753-1831) that the cartoons ‘were executed in the winter evenings by candlelight as a relaxation when Mr. Romney’s mind had been jaded by portrait painting during the day’.