I’m not sure that mixing of ‘Love Potions’ is wholly desirable in the 21st century, sending a DM on Instagram is a more usual way to attract the attention of your ‘heart’s desire’. However, love potions are a feature in many books and paintings, and this painting by Evelyn De Morgan is a particularly fine example.
Painted in 1903, it shows a woman dressed in a stunning gold dress intently pouring a red liquid in to a goblet. It is not certain that she is the sorceress who created the potion, or whether she is the person who commissioned it. Indeed the artist’s sister and founder of the De Morgan Collection, Wilhelmina Stirling, when describing it for her ‘Catalogue of the De Morgan collection of paintings and pottery’ says of it “ A witch in bright yellow, with a callous, cruel face, mixing a potion to upset the lovers who are seen on the terrace in the distance.” Aside from the inclusion of a black cat and some books by the Renaissance physicist and occultist Paracelsus, there is anything in the painting itself to suggest that she is following a recipe to concoct a potion of any kind.
The woman in the painting is clothed in yellow gold, a colour that symbolises spiritual salvation. Evelyn De Morgan was a keen follower of the Spiritualist Movement which adopts a hierarchy of colours to denote the path to enlightenment; black – the material state of guilt, sin, and death; white – the early stages or purification; red followed by yellow – towards the gold of salvation and these colour schemes can be seen in many of Evelyn’s paintings. But what of the woman? Is she really devising a dastardly potion to steal someone’s affections, or is she going to drink it herself for reasons best known to herself? The painting holds other clues such as the embracing couple seen through the window in the distance who may represent the harmonious union of opposites, the red lions on the tapestry which are a symbol for Christianity and strength and wisdom and the inclusion of a small black cat, traditionally associated with witchcraft and as being a creature of night hinting at alchemy. The woman also wears red shoes which indicate that she is a strong independent woman who knows her own mind, while her gold dress may represent the transition of the body into spiritual nature as she drinks her potion.
Through this allegorical narrative, Evelyn uses her Spiritualist vocabulary to subvert the traditional role of the woman, presenting us with an image of a skilled and intelligent champion more than capable of achieving the enlightenment she seeks.
You can see this painting for yourself at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle as part of the Enchanted Interiors exhibition until 22nd February 2020. https://laingartgallery.org.uk/whats-on/the-enchanted-interior
Find out more about this painting and the life and works of Evelyn and William De Morgan at https://www.demorgan.org.uk/collection/the-love-potion/