“Cadmus and Harmonia” Evelyn Pickering De Morgan

Evelyn De Morgan.  1877.  London, De Morgan Foundation.

Evelyn De Morgan. 1877. London, De Morgan Foundation.

Women artists who portrayed the female nude during the late nineteenth century ran the risk of being pegged into two categories. These women were viewed as being morally decadent, or surprisingly, as being politically conservative because they were following the classical revival movement, which was popular at the time. De Morgan’s use of the female nude stood for allegorical purposes, which often tackled the dissatisfaction women felt from their stifling roles in life (Smith 60-61).

During the first decade of her career, her focus wasn’t on the allegorical as much as it was on producing paintings from sources that were more traditionally biblical, mythological, or literary. From her first study trip to Rome in 1875, to her marriage to William De Morgan in 1885, her early work from this decade can broadly be categorized as history paintings, which is an oddity for a woman artist.

First of all, history paintings were perceived as being superior because of the required education needed to produce one. This knowledge included training with the classics, becoming acquainted with contemporary European literature, and years of drawing from a model that was both draped and nude. This education was the standard for men, but De Morgan was a fortunate young lady and received the same education at home as her brothers. This included learning Greek, Latin, French, German, and Italian, while reading classical mythology and literature. From here, she was given the opportunity to study art at the Slade School of Art, but was not allowed formal training with a fully nude model (Smith 63).

Another aspect that links her aspiration to becoming a professional painter is her skillful use of oils and not watercolors (which were deemed suitable for women) (Smith 65).

In 1877, she exhibited Cadmus and Harmonia at the Dudley Gallery (Smith 65). Studying the work, I immediately thought of Eve and the serpent, but I discovered that the title didn’t fit. In the painting, a fully nude woman stands directly in the center of the painting as if on display. She also looms close to the foreground and seems overly large when compared to the rocky formations around her. She looks sadly off to the side, as if thinking about an old memory or past lover. We see no sign of human inhabitation, only a sprinkling of small flowers at her feet, and calm water to her left. The snake has coiled around both of her feet, anchoring her in place and moves upwards, ready to complete his task of captivating her.

After doing research on this painting, I discovered many other references. The woman’s pale skin, painted with a touch of silvery gray, echoes the underside of the snake’s belly. Visitors likely cringed at the thought of a woman’s bare skin touching that of a snake’s. The late Victorian viewer was more aware of the emotional connection and not the intellectual one. A general, erotic associated would have been assumed, from Eve and Lilith to Lamia and Flaubert’s Salammbo (Smith 63).

The narrative of Cadmus and Harmonia focuses on the devotion between an elderly married couple in a moment of sorrow. However, as we can plainly see, Harmonia is a beautiful young lady, not an old woman (Smith 63). Ovid wrote that Cadmus encountered the king of Phoenicia, and “a serpent sacred to Mars” who killed Cadmus’s attendants. Finally, after struggling to destroy the serpent, Cadmus succeeds, but then hears a voice say “Thou too shalt be a serpent for men to gaze on.” Years later, after marrying Harmonia (daughter to Venus and Mars), and having several of their children and grandchildren die, Cadmus said: “Was that a sacred serpent which my spear transfixed long ago…? If it be this the gods have been avenging with such unerring wrath, that I pray that I, too, may be a serpent, and stretch myself in long snaky form.” Harmonia, distraught at his transfiguration, embraces his serpentine form as it snakes up her body and begs the gods to transform her into a serpent also. “She spoke; he licked his wife’s face and glided into her dear breasts as if familiar there, embraced her, and sought his wonted place about her neck. All who were there-for they had comrades with them-were filled with horror. But she only stroked the sleek neck of the crested dragon, and suddenly there were two serpents there with intertwining folds.” An excerpt of Ovid’s passage was placed with De Morgan’s exhibition of Cadmus and Harmonia (Smith 65).

I find it interesting that even though there were comrades present during this transfiguration phase, De Morgan chose to portray only the serpent and Harmonia. I believe it fits nicely with her spiritual ideals because now the viewer focuses solely in on Harmonia and gets the sense of transformation that must be taking place inside of her; how her soul changes in addition to her body.

Looking back, we wonder why De Morgan chose such an elusive female figure-why not Venus, the obvious classical choice? We must assume that she was once again flaunting her superiority; she had a diverse education that went beyond the superficial knowledge of the classical subjects and wanted to make this known (Smith 65).

Women artists during the Late Victorian period were encouraged by their male mentors to portray the nude female as “a submissive decorative being.” De Morgan would have known this and a simple glance at this painting seems as if she went along with the idea, if for professional reasons only. However, upon closer examination of her work and dissection of the myth, Harmonia has been recreated as the protagonist and as a symbol of spiritual transcendence. When compared with Spencer-Stanhope’s Eve Tempted by the Serpent, (c. 1877) the viewer can see the submissive female nude portrayed (Smith 65).  To me, it looks like she has no strength or willpower to avoid what is going to happen next.  She also is portrayed sitting down, which goes along with the submissive theme because she isn’t supporting herself, and could be easily swayed.  Her facial expression also suggests that she has already been brainwashed by the serpent, and offers no hint of resisting his poisonous words (she already has the fruit in her hand too)!

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope. Eve Tempted by the Serpent. C. 1877

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope. Eve Tempted by the Serpent. C. 1877

Works Cited

Smith, Elise Lawton. Evelyn Pickering De Morgan and the Allegorical Body. London: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002. Print.

Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal (Siddal Post #7)

Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal (Siddal Post #8)

Clerk Saunders. (1857).  Signed and dated “EES/1857”. Watercolor, bodycolor, and colored chalks on paper laid on stretcher (Marsh and Nunn 117).

Siddal started Clerk Saunders as a painting in December 1856 and completed it in 1857 (Chapman and Meacock 103; Marsh and Nunn 117). However, a woodblock illustration was produced for a future ballad book in May 1854. Additional studies can be seen in the 1866 photographic record of her work. Inspiration came from the old Scottish ballad Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border by Scott’s (Marsh and Nunn 117). Art prior to the High Renaissance (such as Gothic art and medieval illumination), also influenced Siddal’s work (Prettejohn 183).

Within this painting, May Margaret encounters the ghost of her murdered lover, Clerk Saunders, who appears after making his unearthly entrance through the wall to renew his vows. Kneeling on the bed, she kisses the wand to show her fidelity (Marsh and Nunn 117; Prettejohn 183). Both figures appear ghostly and pale, and this heightens the dramatic scene of the dead confronting the living. Through the window, dawn’s light pours over the slumbering medieval city. On the shelf an empty hour-glass stands, which could symbolize death, as one’s life has literally run out of time (Prettejohn 183).

The theme of love/desire, use of bright colors, a medieval connection, and a literary reference represents several important Pre-Raphaelite characteristics. Her style is defined by compositional layering, enclosed spaces, attenuated figures, and jewel-like colors. (Prettejohn 183).

This painting also reflects upon the contemporary issues between class and gender. Like Siddal’s Lady Clare and Keat’s Isabella painted by Millais in 1849, this is a story about love between social unequals. Items throughout the room (such as the prie-dieu she is kneeling upon which was used to aid in prayer), suggests that May Margaret is religiously devoted, as was proper for women (Marsh and Nunn 117). The podium decorated with an angel, holds a manuscript. The alcove also has a manuscript and what looks to be an apple. Looking closely at the piece, there seems to be a cross hidden in the shadows on the right side of the alcove behind May Margaret (though it could just be me trying to create more religious references)! Looking at Clerk Saunders, I wonder if he was some type of knight, as there looks to be a crest/emblem on his robes? I’m sure the flowers symbolize something too; perhaps life because they are alive (for the time being anyway) and if someone knows the specific type of flower, there could be a more specialized meaning behind it.

To me, May Margaret seems could be partaking in witchcraft (another popular movement within Pre-Raphaelite work). Did she “summon” Saunders to appear? I believe it could be a possibility; her manuscripts are closed, if there is a cross in the shadows, it could symbolize her wavering faith because it isn’t displayed prominently, plus she has a wand! Just my thoughts though. Also, this could be another self-portrait-the woman has that red hair again!

Comparisons can be made between Siddal’s Clerk Saunders & Morris’ La Belle Iseult. They both have similar environments of an enclosed chamber and a bed with crumpled sheets (Prettejohn 186; Chapman and Meacock 103). I also noticed that in La Belle Iseult, the manuscript is open, which could suggest her strong religious devotion.

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William Morris’ La Belle Iseult1858

Clerk Saunders was exhibited at the 1857 Russell Place Show and also included in the British Art exhibition that was sent to America later in that same year. Charles Eliot Norton of Harvard then purchased the painting. Charles Fairfax Murray later acquired it and inscribed on the back: “This picture by Mrs Rossetti, esteemed by her husband the best of her works,” and later continues, “Gabriel Rossetti himself worked on this picture as was customary with him, as Mr Burne-Jones told me long ago.” However, the painting doesn’t display D.G. Rossetti’s touch and it’s possible that Murray hoped to enhance the value of this work by his statement. Sir Galahad at the Shrine (1855-7, Tate Gallery 1984, no.217) was signed by both Siddal and D.G. Rossetti so Murray may have also confused the two works accidently (Marsh and Nunn 117).

Works Cited

Marsh, Jan, and Pamela Gerrish Nunn. “Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists”. London, Thames and Hudson: 1997. Print.

“Pre-Raphaelites: The Poetry of Drawing”. The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group. Web. 6 Mar. 2013. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturepicturegalleries/8296065/Pre-Raphaelites-The-Poetry-of-Drawing.html?image=12.

Prettejohn, Elizabeth. The Cambridge Companion to the Pre-Raphaelites. New York, Cambridge University Press: 2012. Print.

“William Morris, Jane Burden”. Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May. 25 Mar. 2010. Web. 6 Mar. 2013. http://gather-ye-rosebuds-while-ye-may.blogspot.com/2010/03/william-morris-jane-burden-la-belle.html.

Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal (Siddal Post #1)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal, 1854, Delaware Museum of Art, Wilmington, DE

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal, 1854, Delaware Museum of Art, Wilmington, DE

Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal was an intriguing Pre-Raphaelite artist who produced a variety of works, including poetry, drawings, and paintings (mainly watercolor, but she dabbled in oil too (Prettejohn 185, 189).


Siddal’s birth is debatable; some place it at 1829, while others in 1834 (Elizabeth; Prettejohn 183). Her death occurred on February 11th, 1862 of a laudanum overdose, a type of opiate to relieve pain. After being found unconscious, doctors pumped her stomach to no avail (Chapman and Meacock 144). Her early death points to suicide (in 1949, Helen Rossetti Angeli claims that Siddal left a suicide note), and she likely had a laudanum addiction too (Elizabeth; Chapman and Meacock 144).


The watercolor Miss Siddal (pictured) by Dante Gabrielle Rossetti is one of the many works he produced of her; he obsessively sketched Siddal’s features throughout the 1850’s until her death in 1862 (Chapman and Meacock 59; Rossetti).
Look for more exciting information on Siddal in my next post!

Works Cited
Chapman, Alison, and Joanna Meacock. A Rossetti Family Chronology. Great Britian, Palgrave Macmillan: 2007. Print.

“Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal (1834-1862)”. The Victorian Web. 16 Sep. 2006. Web. 4 Mar. 2013. http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/siddal/index.html.

Prettejohn, Elizabeth. The Cambridge Companion to the Pre-Raphaelites. New York, Cambridge University Press: 2012. Print.

“Rossetti Archive Textual Transcription” Rossetti Archive.  2008.  Web. 5 Mar. 2013.  http://www.rossettiarchive.org/docs/nd497.r8.m33.rad.html#A.R37.1.

(Image from: http://artseverydayliving.com/blog/2012/04/rossetti/)