On her seventeenth birthday, August 30th 1872, Evelyn De Morgan wrote in her diary: “At the beginning of each year I say ‘I will do something’ and at the end I have done nothing. Art is eternal, but life is short”.
De Morgan was a successful and prolific artist, exhibiting a range of her works from 1877 until her death in 1919. Her style is distinctive in its rich use of colour, allegory and the dominance of the female form. Her favourite model, Jane Hales, was once her sister’s nursemaid. She is the prototype for most of Evelyn’s women. These contrast noticeably with the women painted by male Pre-Raphaelite artists, such as those by Edward Burne-Jones, who seem to be ephemeral, dreamlike constructions in danger of wilting away. Instead, Evelyn De Morgan presents strong, athletic women, who are beautiful but robust. Jane Hales features as a model in a number of the De Morgan Collection's paintings, including Flora, Lux in Tenebris and The Dryad.
Evelyn’s early works such as Ariadne in Naxos and Venus and Cupid are indebted to the Classical influence taught at the Slade School of Art by Sir Edward Poynter. Her style then develops to engage with the commercially successful style promoted by the Pre Raphaelites and her works take on more allegorical meanings or symbolic references to life, death and the entrapment of women in a male patriarchal society, as seen in paintings such as The Gilded Cage and The Prisoner.
After Evelyn’s marriage to William De Morgan in 1877 she begins to incorporate more moral and spiritual issues into her works and the style of her painting evolves accordingly. Spiritualism was a popular strand of unorthodox belief from the mid-19th century originating in America, with séances, table-turnings, and levitations, through the control of a medium. William De Morgan’s mother, Sophia, was a clairvoyant medium and she encouraged William and Evelyn to think similarly. After the marriage of Evelyn and William in 1887, the couple began a prolonged ‘experiment’ with automatic (or trance) spirit writing which resulted in the anonymous publication in 1909 of the transcripts of The Result of an Experiment. Many of the ideas in this book can be traced in De Morgan’s paintings, for example spiritual blindness and the struggle for enlightenment form the allegories in works such as The Captives and The Passing of the Soul at Death.
In the 1880s with the onset of the Boer War, and later in World War I in 1914, De Morgan used her art to express the fears shared by many about the effects and horrors of war. In paintings such as S.O.S. De Morgan combines an anti-war message with her spiritualist beliefs. Here, a lone figure stands on a rocky outcrop in the ocean, beset on all sides by mythological beasts. This can be read as dismay at the encroaching war, and also in terms of De Morgan’s spiritualist belief in the redemptive figure of the female, as a symbol of optimism.
De Morgan’s use of colour is very distinctive and is used to represent psychological and esoteric states. Rainbow iridescent shades appear in many of her works; the rainbow was considered in mythology to form a bridge for the soul after death and this is in keeping with her spiritualism. Other rich colours were also symbolic - the yellow in The Love Potion suggest sympathy with the figure of the witch and the red in The Red Cross and The Christian Martyr is used as a symbol of martyrdom.
De Morgan’s works offer a fascinating insight into key Victorian concerns and ideas. Her lifelong interest in spiritualism is linked to her feminist and anti-war beliefs, and these form the inspiration for many of her works and enable us to understand them in new and revealing ways.