I was flipping through Evelyn Pickering De Morgan and the Allegorical Body by Elise Lawton Smith, and came across The Love Potion (1903). Honestly what drew me into this painting was the black cat (not to say the rest of the painting isn’t interesting)!
Today, the black cat still has negative connotations, and I’m sure De Morgan’s black cat in this painting has a magical meaning. Based off of the title The Love Potion, I’m assuming that the woman mixing the elixir is a gypsy or witch, and the black cat was added to strengthen this claim. The woman in her brilliant golden dress seems to represent a bygone time; perhaps her attire suggests a medieval connection.
Looking out the window, we see two minuscule figures. A knight in armor and a woman dressed in white. This scene holds different meanings for me. At first, I thought that the woman in gold was mixing a potion to give to the knight, so as to steal his love away from from the woman in white. Then, I thought maybe she was mixing the potion for the lady in white, so as to gain his attraction. If this is the case, it shows the woman in white getting what she wants. One last idea I had, was that the woman in gold concocted the elixir for the knight, and the scene outside the window shows the lady in gold (now dressed in white), reaping the benefits of the potion.
Looking around the room I notice a collection of books stored beneath the window. Perhaps these are spell books or poetry on courtly love? To the left of the woman, a couple of books haven fallen down (and they are unmarked unlike the other books that have titles). Could these be the books she was reading that inspired her to use a love potion? Laying next to her is a white cloth. Originally, I thought it was a handkerchief that she had been using to wipe her eyes after crying. However, she doesn’t look as if she has been crying, so perhaps she used the cloth to smuggle in the potion in secrecy.
Carved into the bottom portion of the bench she sits on are multiple panels with figures in outdoor settings. These remind me of courtly love scenes where lovers are secretly meeting because the visible panels display couples that are embracing.
The woman adding the potion to the goblet is totally focused on her task at hand. However, her black cat stares intently back at the viewer, aware of our intrusion on this private scene. Returning to the room, the curtains hanging beside the open window have stylized lions and trees. To me, the lions look like they were painted after bestiary animals (and for that matter, the trees look like they were taken from a manuscript too). I’m sure there is a reason why she chose to portray lions versus some other animal.
Looking closely at the stylized patten on the trees, I realized it looks very similar to the detail on her head scarf. Both have a scale like effect. However, on her scarf, the fabric almost looks like red snake skin with golden and green iridescent accents.
Looking outside, rolling hills are bathed in light produced by the setting sun. A castle is barely visible in the horizon. Perhaps the setting sun suggests that at last the couple is together and they are ready to pursue the next stage of life together.
After doing some research into the painting, I discovered that The Love Potion belongs to a group of thematically related works, including Medea, and Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund. These paintings focus not on a woman’s helplessness but on her magical powers (Smith 100). Both Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund and The Love Potion represent the Pre-Raphaelites attraction to medieval themes (Smith 104).
In The Love Potion, the woman is represented as a civilized scholar rather than a creepy, disheveled witch active late at night. Portrayed in her study, she represents an alchemist or sorcerer rather than a witch. Two of her leather bound books Artis Magi and Iamblicus are placed next to each other and likely refer to the work of Iamblichus, a Syrian Neoplatonist who promoted the magic of theurgy. De Occulta Philosophia can be connected to the physician and philosopher Agrippa von Nettesheim from the sixteenth-century. Another volume labelled Paracelsus contains the work of Paracelsus, a contemporary of Agrippa, and was best known for his studies in medical, chemical, and alchemical areas. AZ: Opus likely refers to an allusion to Azoth, which represents the “universal spirit of the world”, and was referred to as “the soul of dissolved bodies” in an early alchemical text. At times, AZ also stood for “the alpha and omega which are everywhere present” (Smith 107).
The Love Potion may have been inspired by her husband’s work The Alchemist’s Daughter. The landscape is reminiscent of her work. However, she has removed the woman from the secondary role, and instills her with authority within her painting (Smith 107).
Unlike Maria Spartali Stillman’s work Pharmakeutria, the woman works in a light filled study and not within the darkness of a forest. De Morgan’s black cat would act in much of the same way as Stillman’s owl; both would be associated with evil, the darkness of night, and witches. However, the cat is calmly curled at the woman’s feet and seems friendly rather than diabolical. Another association of the cat links it to the “feminine” evil, connecting it to the mysteries of the night (similarly like the moon was gendered as female) (Smith 107-108).
Cats were also associated as being unpredictable, cunning, and as aggressively sexual. Dating back to at least the Sixteenth-century, cats symbolized prostitution. De Morgan’s cat however, challenges the idea about witches and it is assumed to be a well behaving house cat, portrayed in a non-threatening way. De Morgan surely was taking the image of the cat and changing its perception, much in the same way that she was tackling the social roles for women (Smith 108).
De Morgan also chose her colors for this painting with the upmost care. According to the alchemical system, the golden yellow of the woman’s dress symbolizes the highest stage of purification, and is not associated with treachery or jealousy, as it often is in Western traditions. The four stages that marked the transitions towards the ultimate spiritual enlightenment were black, which is the color of Prime Matter (guilt, sin, and death), white (representing the early stages of purification), and then red and yellow (the final stages towards the purity of gold) (Smith 108).
With this information in mind, the black cat symbolizes the soul in transition towards purification. Its blackness is offset by the red lions, which were seen as creatures of the light in Giordano Bruno’s “On the Shadow of Ideas”. The progression to spiritual enlightenment can be seen in the spiral shape from the black cat, to the white cloth, to the red lions and cushions, and finally to the brilliant gold of her dress (Smith 108).
Overall, The Love Potion is another beautiful painting where De Morgan turns the role of the woman into a strong, intelligent, and skilled protagonist who doesn’t resort to manipulative behavior in her journey of transformation.
As always, I would love to hear your opinions and/or research on this work. Thanks for reading!
Smith, Elise Lawton. Evelyn Pickering De Morgan and the Allegorical Body. London: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002. Print.