Evelyn De Morgan: Painter of Love, Peace, and Other Emotions
Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919) was an English painter who was associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement. She painted allegorical works that carry themes of spirituality, love, and peace. Inspired by Christian stories and Greek mythology, as well as literature and history, her strong female characters and handsome young male figures are shown in dramatic poses with lavish colors and luxuriant textures.
Her painting The Angel with the Serpent, created early in her career, is a good representation of her style.
Evelyn De Morgan’s Painting Style
Evelyn De Morgan was an oil painter who took full advantage of the medium to celebrate rich colors that shine with smooth buttery luster. She often started with drawings of nude characters and then added more clothing and detail. Her fabrics are lustrous, with deep folds that fall over the characters in a breezy way, leaving enough of the body undraped to showcase the beauty of the human body.
She favored topics from literature and mythology and liked to showcase female characters. She also believed that art should have messages of peace and hope. She painted her 1900 painting The Storm Spirits in the middle of the Boer War. In the painting, she symbolically depicts the chaos of war while also making sure the painting demonstrates optimism. The characters of Rain, Thunder, and Lightning, personified by beautiful female spirits, don’t seem too malevolent and we get the sense that peace will return after they blow off some steam.
During World War I, Evelyn painted many anti-war paintings, using demons to represent war. She sold some of her paintings to raise funds for the Red Cross. In The Vision, two women in the foreground embody Peace and Purity. Behind them is a threatening demon, a personification of war and destruction. The background shows a sunrise and calm seas, a promise of hope. De Morgan painted this work in 1914 as World War I was breaking out.
Although De Morgan painted themes of love and non-violence, her paintings aren’t all happy stories. Her Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund work tells an apocryphal story from the 12th century about King Henry II of England, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, and his mistress Rosamund Clifford. Henry II was rumored to have as his mistress the beautiful Rosamund whom he kept hidden away in a labyrinth-like house. Despite Henry’s attempt to protect his lover, the jealous Queen Eleanor found her way through the labyrinth by using a red thread, where, according to legend, she poisoned fair Rosamund. In the painting, the Queen carries a small flask of poison plus the thread that led her through the maze. Shadowy evil dragons and apes can be seen behind her. In contrast, there are also winged cherubs and shadowy doves of peace.
Evelyn De Morgan Biography
Evelyn De Morgan, whose original name was Mary Evelyn Pickering, was born in London in 1855 to upper-class parents. She grew up with the first name “Mary” but dropped it to go by her middle name as it was gender-neutral at the time and allowed for her works to be judged on their merit, rather than on the basis of her gender. Her mother believed that girls deserved to be educated as well as boys and arranged for tutors to teach Evelyn and her brothers at home. They studied Greek, Latin, French, German, and Italian, as well as classical literature and mythology, religion, history, and science.
Evelyn started taking drawing lessons when she was 15 and knew right away that art was her calling in life. Evelyn’s younger sister, Anna Wilhelmina Stirling, who was born 10 years after Evelyn, wrote a biography about Evelyn and her future husband William De Morgan in which she tells stories about the family’s attempt to turn Evelyn into a typical landed-gentry lady.
According to Anna, Evelyn was interested in little other than painting. When the girls’ mother suggested Evelyn be presented to society, Evelyn stated:
"I'll go to the drawing room if you like... but if I go, I'll kick the Queen!"
When their mother made further attempts to introduce Evelyn to society, Evelyn announced:
"No one shall drag me out with a halter round my neck to sell me."
In 1872, Evelyn enrolled at the South Kensington National Art Training School (today the Royal College of Art) and in 1873 moved to the Slade School of Fine Art, which was open to both men and women, unlike many art schools of the time. At Slade, she was awarded the prestigious Slade Scholarship and won several awards. She eventually left Slade to work more independently.
In August 1883, Evelyn met the ceramicist William De Morgan who was the son of the mathematician and logician Augustus De Morgan (who is famous for De Morgan’s laws for propositional logic and Boolean algebra). Evelyn and William married in March 1887. They spent their lives together in London, making beautiful art and traveling to Italy when they could. In the early years of their marriage, Evelyn used profits from her art to support William’s pottery work.
Through her marriage to William, Evelyn was introduced to his mother, Sophia Elizabeth De Morgan, who was a spiritualist and social reformer. Sophia was involved in prison and workhouse reform. She was also an anti-slavery and women’s suffrage advocate. Evelyn agreed with Sophia’s views and signed the “Declaration in Favour of Women’s Suffrage” in 1889.
One of Evelyn’s paintings, The Gilded Cage, expresses her feminism and a longing for more freedom for women. In the painting, a young woman, dressed in a flowing gold robe, looks wistfully at people celebrating outside. Despite all her riches, shown in the jewels and books she has discarded, the woman longs to be outside. Victorian society dictated that women avoid the public sphere and focus on domestic life. The idea is echoed by a canary in a golden cage in the top right of the painting. Although in many ways Evelyn De Morgan escaped the confines of the patriarchal Victorian society, she was still inspired to paint about the problem.
Evelyn and her husband William visited Florence for half the year every year from 1895 until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Evelyn studied the great artists of the Renaissance, and the influence of early Renaissance artists such as Sandro Botticelli is especially visible in her works from this point onwards.
In England, Evelyn developed friendships with Pre-Raphaelite painters Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt, and was also friendly with other key figures in the Victorian literary and artistic world. She first exhibited in 1876 at the Dudley Gallery, and then a year later at the inaugural Grosvenor Gallery exhibition in London. She exhibited regularly until 1907, including a one-woman show at Wolverhampton Municipal Art Gallery and Museum where 25 works were shown, including 14 for sale.
Evelyn’s beloved husband, William De Morgan, died of trench fever in London in 1917. Evelyn died two years later. She was laid to rest with William at Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey, England.
The Pre-Raphaelite Movement
Evelyn De Morgan painted in the Pre-Raphaelite style. The Pre-Raphaelites were a group of English painters, poets, and art critics in the second half of the 19th century who sought to return rich colors and appealing compositions to art, similar to art created in the early days of the Italian Renaissance by masters such as Fra Angelico, Sandro Botticelli, and Leonardo da Vinci. They rebelled against English art of their era, which focused on realistic portrayals of nature and Neoclassicism.
The Pre-Raphaelites thought that the Classical poses and elegant compositions of Raphael had been a corrupting influence on the academic teaching of art, hence the name “Pre-Raphaelite.” They also adamantly objected to the work of their contemporary, Sir Joshua Reynolds, whom they called Sir Sloshua because his work was sloshy, as in excessively sentimental and sloppy. Artists who worked in the Pre-Raphaelite genre were never sloppy, though they could be accused of sentimentality. However, they took their art very seriously and believed that artists had a personal responsibility to avoid being conventional.
Art from the Pre-Raphaelite era has serious themes, such as love and death, and a focus on dreamy emotions, with lots of long-haired women in long, flowing dresses, looking out from the canvas with yearning. Pre-Raphaelite artists were particularly interested in medieval culture, believing it to possess a spiritual and creative integrity that had been lost in later eras. They were also influenced by stories from literature and Greek mythology.
Despite their high ideals, the Pre-Raphaelites had a gender problem. There were originally no women in their ranks. In fact, in the early days, they literally called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and though they loved to paint strong, beautiful women, they didn’t expect them to be artists themselves. Evelyn de Morgan broke that mold.
In the 1870s, Evelyn befriended the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite movement and embraced their principles. Like her more famous male contemporaries, she sought to express emotions and beauty in her art and to avoid conventional assumptions about the purpose of art.
In her 1896 painting Boreas and Oreithyia she tells the story of a Greek myth but adds an unconventional twist to an otherwise difficult story. According to legend, Boreas, the god of the north wind, was infamous for having kidnapped the mortal princess Oreithyia. De Morgan chose not to portray Boreas as evil and instead shows the couple in a loving embrace as Oreithyia achieves immortality, becoming the wife of Boreas.
The men of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, including Rossetti and Hunt, John Everett Millais, William Morris, Aubrey Beardsley, and others, are better known, but a small number of women connected to the movement eventually carved out a place for themselves. In addition to De Morgan, women artists from the era include Elizabeth Siddal, Marianne Stokes, Joanna Mary Boyce, Emma Sandys, and Jane and May Morris, wife and daughter of the more famous William Morris.
By 1853, the original brotherhood had dissolved, and the term Pre-Raphaelite became associated with a wider and long-lived art movement characterized by the romantic paintings of Rossetti, Millais, and De Morgan. Many artists slowly moved away from the original messages of the Pre-Raphaelite movement to form the Aesthetic movement, which focused purely on aesthetics. Evelyn De Morgan stayed true to the original principles, though, and continued to paint lush colors and sensual compositions with messages about love, pacifism, and a rejection of materialism.
The Crown of Glory is an example of one of Evelyn’s works that depicts a rejection of material wealth and objects. The painting shows a wealthy woman removing her crown and her pearls, seemingly inspired to do so by a backgrounded portrayal of a tapestry of Jesus, St. Francis, and Poverty.
Evelyn De Morgan left the world with approximately 100 gorgeous oil paintings. She defied her mother and a patriarchal society to become an artist, joining and outlasting the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and steadfastly offering a vision of love and beauty. Her delightful works express messages of feminism, peace, and idealism, and may be exactly what the world needs in a time of turmoil.
Evelyn’s sister, Anna Wilhelmina Stirling, gathered Evelyn’s works into a collection which eventually became the De Morgan Collection. The De Morgan Foundation cares for the collection, which includes works by Evelyn and William De Morgan, and provides public access to it. If you can visit the collection in person, we highly recommend it.
In the meantime, be sure to check out the collection at 1000Museums!