Object in Focus: Medusa

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Posted 14th June 2022

Our Collection Online Early Career Research Fellow (Mythological Subjects), Dr Melissa L Gustin, introduces us to G F Watts, Medusa, 1846-47, alabaster in this blog.

See Medusa on display in our exhibition A Fragmented Legacy: G F Watts and Sculpture, 28 June - 2 October 2022.

During his first, formative trip to Italy, G F Watts spent most of his time in Florence, a centre for English-speaking painters and sculptors. Although Watts had gone to Italy to study fresco painting, he took the opportunity to try his hand at sculpture and made his head of Medusa. Lady Caroline Duff Gordon wrote to Watts’s first patron in Florence, Lord Holland, that ‘He [Watts] lives almost entirely with us, & models a good deal—(very cleverly, he has just done a very clever Medusa’s Head).’ [1] The head stayed with Watts his whole life and was not exhibited. Only one copy was made, for his patron Charles Rickard, which was also never exhibited. This is now in the Whitworth Gallery of Art in Manchester. [2]

Medusa was an ancient mythological figure whose story changed repeatedly through antiquity and into the modern era. The earliest version of the written story comes from the eighth-century BCE Greek poet Hesiod. This describes Medusa as the only mortal sister of the three Gorgons, monstrous women with snakes for hair, tusks, and wings. It was only in the first century CE, with the Roman poet Ovid, that the idea of Medusa as a beautiful human woman transformed into a monster was fully developed. [3] In Ovid’s version, Medusa was a priestess of Athena who was raped by the god of the sea Poseidon. Athena punished Medusa by turning her into the monster with whom we are now familiar. Watts produced his version of Medusa under the influence of artworks in Florence by Benvenuto Cellini and Caravaggio. [4] Most important was a painting believed to be by Leonardo da Vinci (but actually an unknown sixteenth-century Flemish painter). [5]

It was common for professional sculptors in Italy to use teams of local workmen to carve their sculptures for them. These expert craftsmen copied the artist’s clay or plaster model using measuring tools like a pointing machine. Close examination of the Watts Gallery’s Medusa reveals small pinpoint divots in the surface, which are likely the remnants of a drill bit or chisel going too deep. This suggests that Watts carved the head himself, rather than using professionals. This makes sense if we think of the head as an experiment rather than a piece to sell or exhibit. When Watts sold a version of the Medusa to Charles Rickards in the 1870s, he seems to have given the marble carving over to workmen instead. The later version is simplified, with less detail in the locks of hair, which would have made carving easier and faster. A plaster copy in the Watts Gallery may be a working cast for the later version, since it is partial and has a rough metal bar for structural support across the back. [6]

Medusa will feature in our upcoming exhibition A Fragmented Legacy: G F Watts and Sculpture from 28 June - 2 October 2022. 


[1] Letter from Caroline Duff Gordon to Lord Holland, Careggi, Sept 19 1846, in Katherine Gaja, G F Watts in Italy: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Florence: Leo S. Olschiki Editore, 1995) p. 117.

[2] http://gallerysearch.ds.man.ac.uk/Detail/17919

[3] https://ovid.lib.virginia.edu/trans/Metamorph4.htm#Bkfour706

[4]  https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/search/objects?q=cellini+medusa&p=1&ps=12&st=Objects&ii=7#/RP-F-F03044,7


[5] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Medusa_uffizi.jpg

[6] COMWG.455.2