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Evelyn De Morgan
Evelyn showed a flair for and a dedication to art from an early age. On her seventeenth birthday she wrote in her diary: ”At work a little after 7... 17 today, that is to say seventeen years wasted in eating, dawdling and frittering time away... Art is eternal, but life is short... I will make up for it now, I have not a moment to lose.”
Evelyn was born in 1855 in London to upper class parents Percival Pickering Q.C. and Anna Maria Spencer Stanhope. On her mother's side, she was related to the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Roddam Spencer Stanhope and Coke of Norfolk. It was her middle class upbringing and the the availability of her uncle as a tutor which allowed Evelyn to pursue a career as an artist which was very unusual for a women of her time.
In 1872 Evelyn spent some months studying at the South Kensington National Art Training School, but her aspirations were clearly at odds with the school's traditional emphasis on the more feminine idea of artisanship and 'accomplishment'. The next year she enrolled at the newly established Slade School of Art, becoming one of the first three women to do so along with Mary Watts (née Tytler).
Evelyn rebelled against her middle class upbringing and gender stereotypes of the time. She had a coach and escort to take her from home to the Slade, but would insist of being dropped off a block away and walking the last block on her own, carrying her paints and canvases. She travelled unaccompanied throughout France and to Italy where she visited with her uncle, supposedly spending her dress allowance on getting there.
She was one of the first exhibitors at the Grosvenor Gallery, the avant-garde alternative to the Royal Academy. She was a fine draughtswoman and her drawings are often mistaken for those of her male contemporaries, Frederic Leighton and Burne-Jones. De Morgan continued to paint and exhibit professionally for the rest of her life.
She became involved in many of the leading issues of the day including prison reform, pacifism and spiritualism. She was also involved with the Suffragette movement and was a signatory for the "Declaration in Favour of Women's Suffrage" in 1889 .
Evelyn's drawings are enlightening not only for their skill and subject matter but also because they help us to understand her working process.
From loose compositional sketches, Evelyn swiftly progressed to detailed life studies for the figures in her paintings. Choosing to draw mainly on a grey wove paper in pencil and pastel Evelyn produced hundreds of figure studies. Her rigorously examined double studies of clothed and nude figures are particularly fascinating and underline the artist's obsession with the human form and her desire for accuracy.
As well as these postural studies, Evelyn also produced exquisite studies of details, such as faces, which were typically either beautiful or characterful. Hands and feet were also studied at length to ensure realism. On occasion oil studies of key elements were also executed, although the Foundation has very few of these within its Collection.
It is apparent that once a composition was decided and the model posed and studied, Evelyn rarely deviated from her concept. Scrutiny of the extant oil paintings proves this point as there is very little reworking or over painting: a remarkable fact considering the style of painting and complexity of compositions.
As a final element to her working process, Evelyn executed detailed compositional studies. These pieces can be considered works of art in their own right and it is apparent that Evelyn often sold them as such. The works in gold on dark grey wove paper are of particular interest as very few artists used this technique, although it is known that Burne-Jones produced similar works.
Evelyn usually painted on prepared canvases in oil paint, which is a long-standing convention. She did however paint some panels such as The Dryad and experimented with suspending oils in glycerine with Cyltie, a method she called 'the process' that she worked with William on, but did not find this method effective and painted only this and The Souls Prison House in this way.
Evelyn's early work defies the Aestheticism it is stylistically similar to as she chose narrative subjects rather than submitting to creating 'art for art's sake' which was central to the movement. Night and Sleep (1878) features the personified forms of night and sleep in a typical Aesthete dreamlike landscape, but the inclusion of bright red poppies that dominate the visual space are a clear commentary on the Opium Wars and the Laudanum crisis. She was clearly inspired by Botticelli's figures in his masterpiece Primavera for the composition of this painting.
Her later work – large jewel-like canvases with minute attention to detail and a photographic rendering of natural forms – is labelled as Pre-Raphaelite. However, her depiction of Rossetti's favoured model Jane Morris as an old woman pondering the passing of time in The Hourglass (1905) ridicules the Brotherhood's objectification of women by commenting that their ideals of beauty of destroyed by time.
Evelyn exhibited regularly at the Grosvenor Gallery and was a commercially successful artist, which regular patrons such as shipping magnate William Imrie. Her popularity was such that she held a solo exhibition in London in 1906 and in Wolverhampton in 1907, which was an unprecedented success for a female artist at that time.
Evelyn's social consciousness is most notable in her pacifist paintings which she exhibited in her studio in 1916 to raise funds for British Red Cross and the Italian Crocce Rosa. In these works, she uses a lexicon of symbols, such as dragons and sea monsters, to portray the horrors of war.
Evelyn's artistic talent is striking in her paintings, which are all of exceptional quality and her unique style and oeuvre set her apart from her contemporaries. Despite this, she is not a particularly well-known artist which is largely due to the fact her younger sister made it her life's work to collect her paintings until her death in the 1960s, leading to Evelyn's work being hugely unrepresented in public collections and overlooked by researchers and academics. Her sister's collection is the cornerstone of the De Morgan Foundation's collection today, which is the largest and most comprehensive in the world.