When you think of mythology in Victorian art, you probably think of the nude water nymphs of John William Waterhouse. As we saw last week, his work draws heavily from myth and legend for its subject matter. Yet he was nowhere near being the only artist inspired by classical stories. Evelyn De Morgan was another artist, although her work has never been as widely discussed or appreciated as that of her male counterparts. Indeed, it’s only been a relatively recent resurgence of interest that has seen her work shared more widely.
In this article, let’s explore the link between mythology and art within De Morgan’s work! We’ll look at two more artists throughout July.
Remember, while the Victorians have a lot to answer for more widely, there is a reason for the choice. It was a period in which mythology and folklore appeared a lot in art. True, they used these myths to explore dangerous female sexuality or to reinforce other patriarchal and colonial ideals. But these paintings also brought these legends to a wider audience.
On a practical level, many of the paintings are in the public domain, so I can share them here. So let’s explore the use of mythology in the art of Evelyn De Morgan!
Who was Evelyn De Morgan?
Evelyn De Morgan, both Mary Evelyn Pickering on 30 August 1855 in London. Her uncle was the artist John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, who was often considered a latter-generation Pre-Raphaelite. While she was home-educated, she also studied a range of languages, including Latin and Greek, and studied mythology, classical literature, history, and science. Her mother believed she should enjoy the same education as her brother. This sort of thinking perhaps explains why some scholars see feminist themes in her work. It also helps that she boycotted the Royal Academy and signed the Declaration in Favour of Women’s Suffrage in 1889.
Evelyn started her art training in 1872 at the Royal College of Art and moved to the Slade School of Art in 1873 after they started accepting women. She first exhibited her work in 1876 and in 1887, she married William De Morgan, a noted ceramicist. Evelyn actually bankrolled William’s pottery work with the money raised through selling her work. The couple were spiritualists, which also appears through Evelyn’s work. In 1909, the De Morgans published The Results of an Experiment anonymously. They’d gathered and edited sections from their automatic writing sessions.
De Morgan exhibited regularly until 1907. In 1907, William’s career as an author took off, and Evelyn no longer needed to support him with sales of her work. This partially explains why her paintings became more personal and related to Symbolism since she didn’t need to create commercial work. As Elise Lawton Smith points out, the artistic landscape changed in 1910 with the first exhibition of Post-Impressionist art in London (2002: 31). Many of the original Pre-Raphaelites had already died by this point, with art styles across Europe changing. De Morgan, meanwhile, seemed more interested in her spiritual beliefs. She was also a committed pacifist and died on 2 May 1919.
We can divide De Morgan’s paintings into three broad categories: Mythology, Spiritualist themes, and War. This post will focus on her mythological themes.
‘The Angel of Death’ (1880)
In this painting, De Morgan visualises Death visualised as a woman. It’s a soft painting and a rather gentle image. Death is almost viewed as a blessing here (Smith 2006/7: 34). This is hardly surprising. De Morgan saw death as a transition, rather than an ending (1997: 8). This explains the composition, with the reclining human reflected in the leaning angelic figure.
Such an attitude comes from her interest in Spiritualism. She kept her practice private because of the accusations of fraud within the public displays (Oberhausen 2009: 38). Instead, she and her husband practised automatic writing together at home. As Judy Oberhausen notes, “[m]any of those Victorian intellectuals who were interested in spiritualism may have experimented with automatic writing because they felt it could be an aid to their creativity (2009: 39)
Indeed, Spiritualism appears within her paintings in both subtle and overt ways. For many at the time, “Spiritualist philosophy is often conflated with a particularly charged recognition of the claustrophobic world of middle-class Victorian and Edwardian women” (Smith 1997: 3). This reflects the tendency for women to seek their fortune as a medium, one of the few roles where they were prized, rather than rejected.
Clytie was an Oceanid, or water nymph, daughter of Oceanus and Tethys. She loved the sun god Helios, but he abandoned her for Leucothoe, a nereid (another type of water nymph). Furious about this betrayal, Clytie told Leucothoe’s father about the relationship between Leucothoe and Helios. Her father had Leucothoe executed for her relations with Helios, but this didn’t exactly enamour Helios towards Clytie. He resolved to ignore her, and Clytie wondered how to win him back. She sat naked for nine days on the rocks, refusing food and drink, watching Helios’ progress across the sky.
Still he ignored her, and after nine days, she turned into a turnsole, also known as a heliotrope. Newer versions of the myths see Clytie turn into a sunflower, though the belief it turns to face the sun is wrong. Interestingly, sunflowers represented haughtiness in the language of flowers (Valentine 1867: 88). Elsewhere, it also represented ambition, constancy, devotion, loyalty, and unhappy love (Dietz 2020: 433). We can certainly see these ideas around constancy and unhappy love in the Clytie myth. De Morgan paints Clytie at the point she turns into a sunflower. The flowers grow up around her as if they will overtake her entirely.
The painting also demonstrates her tendency to rewrite “a popular mythological figure from a woman’s perspective” (Smith 1997: 5). If we look at Frederic Leighton’s version of the same myth, painted nine years later, his Clytie is subservient to Helios and begs for forgiveness.
De Morgan’s Clytie shields her eyes from the sun instead of “following its path in mute and selfless devotion (Smith 1997:5). The open water behind her reminds us of Clytie’s true home, whereas in Leighton’s painting, the bright sunlight overwhelms the image.
De Morgan painted another flower-related mythological figure, but this time, she chose the Roman goddess of flowers. She stands Flora before a loquat tree since it flowers in the spring. This aligns Flora with spring, flowers, and natural bounty. The pose was also inspired by Botticelli.
Notice that the focus is on Flora but unlike paintings by artists such as John William Waterhouse, she doesn’t need to be nude. De Morgan dresses her in a simple, billowing gown that reflects the drapery seen in classical sculptures. It also lets her show off her abilities in painting realistic fabric. De Morgan adds pansies to her dress, with the pansy representing ‘thoughts’ in the language of flowers (Valentine 1867: 81).
Flora’s long flowing red hair would normally be associated with ‘loose women’, as in the work of Waterhouse. Yet here, De Morgan uses Flora’s hair to denote freedom and abundance. There are few myths directly associated with Flora. Instead, she appears as a supporting character in larger myths. As a result, De Morgan paints her in a simple way, drawing reference to her function rather than any specific legends.
For Elise Lawton Smith, this painting combines pagan imagery with Christian symbolism. The painting uses dawn and spring flowers “as a sign of spiritual awakening” (1997: 6). Swallows on Flora’s scarf represent resurrection, while the goldfinches represent renewal, via the Passion of the Christ (1997: 6).
This painting depicts the Greek goddess of the dawn. Unlike other goddesses, she is winged and pouring water from a jug. This addition of a jug is a clever one that reminds us of De Morgan’s classical education. After all, the image of a figure pouring liquid is usually associated with Aquarius, the Water-Carrier. Most versions of the Aquarius myth refer to Ganymede, the handsome youth beloved by Zeus. Yet there are also versions of the myth in which Eos loved Ganymede first. In these versions, Zeus stole Ganymede from Eos. De Morgan uses the Aquarius reference as an allusion to these differing myths.
The crescent moon behind her shows she has already brought the dawn, and now her sister, the moon goddess Selene is at work. The rosy hue of her wings reflects the colours of the sky at dawn. We can see further folklore allusions through the flowers at her feet. De Morgan includes what look like daisies and white roses.
Laura Valentine notes that white roses represented silence, while in the language of flowers, white roses meant ‘I am worthy of you’ (1867: 85). Perhaps Eos wishes to tell us she’s worthy of our worship—or maybe it’s a rebuke to Ganymede. Valentine also notes that the Greeks dedicated roses to “the rosy-fingered goddess Aurora” (1867: 39). Aurora is the Roman name for Eos, goddess of the dawn. In more recent sources, white roses mean charm, eternal love, humility, innocence, and virtue (Dietz 2020: 187). This meaning of ‘eternal love’ can refer to the curse placed on Eos by Aphrodite, that she would forever be in love with someone.
Daisies represented innocence, while wild daisies meant ‘I will think of it’ (1867: 66). If you slept with daisy root under your pillow, a lost lover would return (Dietz 2020: 187). Given Eos’ chequered past with romance, that could refer to a number of past lovers!
‘Helen of Troy’ (1898)
De Morgan uses a similar composition to other paintings, such as Flora and Eos. I don’t think is an accident, since De Morgan depicts Helen of Troy as if she were a goddess. Again, this alludes to De Morgan’s classical education. In the myth of Leda and the Swan, we learn that Zeus adopted the form of a swan to seduce Leda, Queen of Sparta. After returning to the palace, Leda also slept with her husband, King Tyndareus.
Leda became pregnant and gave birth to four children. Two of the children were Castor and Clytemnestra, and they were those of her husband. The other two were Helen and Pollux and were the children of Zeus. If the names sound familiar, it’s because Castor and Pollux go on to become the constellation, Gemini. Yet here, we see Helen has divine parentage. So it makes sense that De Morgan would depict her as a goddess.
She also chooses not to represent the Trojan War directly, perhaps reflecting her own pacifist stance around war. Helen is surrounded by doves and white roses. While doves traditionally represent peace, this stands at odds with the war that Helen apparently inspired. As with Eos, the white roses could imply her belief in her own worthiness.
The pink of her dress aligns her with Venus, through the attribution of pink to the goddess of love. There’s also a figure of what looks like Venus on the back of Helen’s mirror. These links with Venus reference popular versions of the Trojan War story, in which Aphrodite promised Helen as a prize to Paris. Why? We need to go back a little to a marriage banquet among the gods.
The Judgement of Paris
The gods didn’t invite Eris, goddess of discord, to the banquet which understandably annoyed her. She took a golden apple from the Garden of the Hesperides and threw it among the attendees. In one version of the myth, the words ‘For the fairest one’ were inscribed on the apple.
Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera all claimed the apple. They appealed to Zeus to judge, and he understandably didn’t want to choose. How could he? Hera was his wife, Athena his favourite child, and Aphrodite was the goddess of beauty (Atsma 2000-2017).
So he passed the task onto Paris, seen as exceptionally fair. The goddesses all tried to bribe Paris. Hera would make him king of Asia and Europe, while Athena offered wisdom and skill in war. Aphrodite offered Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris, therefore, chose Aphrodite, and in taking Helen, started the Trojan War. I’m sure Eris was delighted.
But back to Evelyn De Morgan’s painting! In choosing to include this image on the mirror, she references the ultimate cause of the war. It also draws attention to Helen’s face, since her beauty basically caused the war. It’s a very clever way to show the Trojan War without needing to dwell on the carnage caused.
There’s also a double allusion, by also including the moon. This can represent femininity and changeability through its changing cycle throughout the month. It also links to the Moon card in the Tarot. Here the Moon often represents illusions and deception. After all, the Moon appears to shine, although it’s really just reflecting sunlight. When we look at moonlight, we’re looking at both a reflection and an illusion. Could De Morgan be making a comment that beauty is ultimately illusory? Or did she just really enjoy mythology? I’ll leave it up to you to decide.
‘The Love Potion’ (1903)
This is perhaps one of De Morgan’s most misunderstood paintings. In it, a woman apparently brews a love potion. We see a couple on a terrace through the open window. Many commentators assume the woman clad in gold to be a witch, and presume her to be trying to split up the couple. They point to the cat as being the witch’s familiar.
Yet a closer look at the books on the shelf beneath the window would suggest otherwise. One book is by Paracelsus, another by Agrippa. The sorceress appears more of an alchemist or occult practitioner than a folk witch. Her rich dress and sumptuous decor would support this reading. Another implication is that she is brewing a love potion for a client. Perhaps the happy couple on the terrace is a former success story. The man is dressed as a knight, and the woman as a medieval lady, and this recalls ideas around chivalry and courtly romance.
Lawton Smith describes this figure as a magician and a scholar, rather than a witch or sorceress (1997: 9). She also draws occult meaning from the colour palette used, with the focus being on black, white, red, and yellow. These colours appear in alchemical systems to represent “the progressive stages toward the ultimate attainment of spiritual illumination” (1997: 9). By dressing the magician in yellow, she is shown as being both “at the height of her profession” and “also at the highest stage of spiritual development” (1997: 9). This is perhaps my favourite interpretation since it grants so much authority and agency to the female figure.
Evelyn De Morgan and Mythology
It’s interesting to note that the central character in almost all of De Morgan’s paintings is female. In a way, this is no different to John William Waterhouse. Yet the motivation for doing so is rather different. For De Morgan, “the female body was ripe with potentiality, serving as a model for social and spiritual transformation from constraint to freedom” (Smith 2002: 17). Her (largely) clothed female figures do not reinforce traditionally Victorian gender roles. In her mythological paintings, their connection with nature is more important. Indeed, she started out with a full-length female nude for Cadmus and Harmonia (1877) to compete with the male artists.
Clearly, there is so much more to De Morgan than these paintings. Her Spiritualist paintings, depicting dark times and shining figures beset by monsters, derive much symbolism from Christian allegories. But these lie outside the bounds of folklore and mythology. They’re fascinating, but for me, these mythological paintings are perhaps richer than those of her male counterparts. She packs them with classical references, but also uses floral motifs in a way that would speak to contemporary audiences.
De Morgan herself is also an interesting figure, rolling early feminism, spiritualism, and artistic talent into her paintings. In many ways, they speak for her, since she left so few of her own words. Yet they make a refreshing change within the somewhat formulaic works by her male counterparts.
What do you think of the work of Evelyn De Morgan? Let me know below!
Atsma, Aaron J. (2000 – 2017), ‘Judgement of Paris’, Theoi Project, https://www.theoi.com/Olympios/JudgementParis.html.
Dietz, S. Theresa (2020), The Complete Language of Flowers: A Definitive and Illustrated History, New York: Wellfleet Press.
Oberhausen, Judy (2009), ‘Sisters in spirit: Alice Kipling Fleming, Evelyn Pickering de Morgan and 19th-century spiritualism’, The British Art Journal, 9:3, pp. 38-42.
a. Smith, Elise Lawton (1997), ‘The Art of Evelyn De Morgan’, Woman’s Art Journal, 18:2, pp. 3-10.
b. Smith, Elise Lawton (2002), Evelyn Pickering De Morgan and the Allegorical Body, London: Associated University Presses.
c. Smith, Elise Lawton (2006/7), ”Whom the gods love die young’: Evelyn De Morgan and the legend of the Wandering Jew’, The British Art Journal, 7:3, pp. 29-39.
Valentine, Laura (1867), The language and sentiment of flowers, London: Frederick Warne and Co.
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