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 Evelyn Pickering de Morgan  (1855 - 1919)

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Lived/Active: England      Known for: Pre-Raphaelite symbolist painting, female figute

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

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”. This statement illustrates the themes which were to dominate her adult life and career as a professional artist.

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 paintings display a specific interest in the confinement and limitations of the physical body on earth. Often this is resolved through death.

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 Centre’s paintings, including Flora, Lux in Tenebris and The Dryad.

Her early works are indebted to the Classical* influence taught at the Slade School of Art* by Sir Edward Poynter in paintings such as Ariadne in Naxos and Venus and Cupid. After her marriage to William De Morgan, she and William experimented with spiritualism. Themes such as life-after-death, the transformation of the soul, and moral messages about the transitory nature of life dominate her works. Many of De Morgan’s works have been described as ‘symbolist’*.

Lux in Tenebris for example, takes a Biblical theme of Christ as the Light in the Darkness and substitutes a female figure sitting in an aura of light surrounded by darkness, dressed in pale gold robes, holding out the olive branch of peace. At the foot of the painting, lurking in the turgid waters, are crocodile-beasts. De Morgan allegorises the woman as a metaphor of hope and courage, and also as a figure of divine (female) power.

In the 1880s with the onset of the Boer War, and later in World War 1 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. Along with many of the other Pre-Raphaelite artists, Evelyn had visited Italy in order to study the Renaissance Old Masters*. The influence of Botticelli can be seen in Flora. Colour 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 De Morgan’s spiritualism. Other rich colours such as the yellow in The Love Potion suggest a sympathy with the figure of the witch, or red, which 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.

The De Morgan Foundation

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Evelyn De Morgan was an English Pre-Raphaelite* painter. She was born Evelyn Pickering. Her parents were of upper middle class. Her father was Percival Pickering QC, the Recorder of Pontefract. Her mother was Anna Maria Wilhelmina Spencer Stanhope, the sister of the artist John Roddam Spencer Stanhope and a descendant of Coke of Norfolk who was an Earl of Leicester.

Evelyn was educated at home and started drawing lessons when she was 15. On the morning of her seventeenth birthday, Evelyn recorded in her diary, "Art is eternal, but life is short..." "I will make up for it now, I have not a moment to lose."

She went on to persuade her parents to let her go to art school. At first they discouraged it, but in 1873 she was enrolled at the Slade School of Art*. Her uncle, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, was a great influence on her works. Evelyn often visited him in Florence where he lived. This also enabled her to study the great artists of the Renaissance; she was particularly fond of the works of Botticelli. This influenced her to move away from the classical subjects favoured by the Slade school and to make her own style.

In 1887, she married the ceramicist* William De Morgan. They lived together in London until he died in 1917. She died two years later on 2 May 1919 in London and was buried in Brookwood Cemetery, near Woking, Surrey.


* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary

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