De Morgan, Drawing of a Hand with a Paintbrush, 1875. London, De Morgan Foundation. Photo: Witt Library, Courtauld Institute of Art (Smith 23).
Born in 1855 in London, Evelyn De Morgan was the eldest child of the lawyer Percival Pickering QC and the niece of J.R. Spencer Stanhope, another Pre-Raphaelite painter. At age 15 she received lessons with a drawing master, then attended South Kensington and Slade Schools to produce studies (Marsh and Nunn 139; Smith 13). Stylistically, her work is characterized by the combination of loosely defined Aesthetic, Symbolist, and Classicist movements and falls into the broad category of late Victorian English artists (Smith 13).
Her paintings portray the traditional ideas of late Victorian art by using historical narratives and allegories. However, she does manages to stand out, especially as a woman artist, from her contemporaries by doing two things. One is by infusing her work with a form of spiritualism that was based on Swedenborgian ideas about the development of the soul. Her work of the late 1870s and early 1880s reveals her curiosity for this ideology. Her attraction to the mystical may in part be later fueled from her marriage to William in 1885. William’s mother was the author of From Matter to Spirit (1863) a spiritualist treatise, and it turns out she was also closely associated with other Swedenborgian writers throughout mid-century London (Smith 13).
Secondly, her unique portrayal of the female figure captured the viewer’s attention and set her work apart. Many artists of the time chose to represent the female form, yet they kept her confined within the standard role of being a self-reflective, aesthetic icon. De Morgan elaborated on that role, within both narratives and in an allegorical sense, giving them personifications rich in significance. Her artwork centralizes around the female figure, which is layered with allusions that imply both spiritualist and feminist intentions (Smith 13).
Even though she was stylistically consistent (some may consider that limiting), she conveys a vast range of possible roles for women, from those fighting against restrictive societal boundaries, to those weary with resignation, and to those with the strength and power to control their outcome in life (Smith 13).
Sadly, even with a long and productive career that spanned over half a century, and consisted of more than 100 paintings, drawings, and a few sculptural pieces, her work was until recently, overlooked (Smith 13-14). Do not despair though! After her death in 1919, her brother and sister arranged for her work to be exhibited permanently. This initiative allowed many of her works to be preserved and enjoyed today. This collection now resides with the De Morgan Foundation and forms one of the largest permanent exhibitions by a single artist within Britain (Marsh and Nunn 139)!
I would like to close with a brief comment on the image above. The realistic rendering of the hand proves that early in her career she had proficient drawing skills. This differs from Siddal’s situation who was limited to a naive style of work, likely from not having a formal art training as De Morgan had. The sketched hand looks to be that of a woman’s, due to her slenderness of fingers, neatly clipped oval nails, and thin veins traveling across the back of her hand (though I could be wrong)! Having taken a couple of drawing classes myself, I know the challenges that hands (and feet) posses, and she easily and elegantly replicates the hand in front of her.
Marsh, Jan, and Pamela Gerrish Nunn. Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists. Italy: Thames and Hudson, 1998. Print.
Smith, Elise Lawton. Evelyn Pickering De Morgan and the Allegorical Body. London: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002. Print.