An Enchanting Preoccupation with Androgyny and Death
Cecilia Rose (she/her)
Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919) was a second wave Pre-Raphaelite artist, best known for her large-scale paintings of female figures, rich in religious symbolism and feminist overtones. Her successful career spanned across five decades and two centuries, with contemporary G.F. Watts described her as ‘the first woman artist of the day, if not of all time’ (Stirling, 193). However, a side to De Morgan which is often overlooked is her preoccupation with the concept of androgyny, and her defiance of gender convention in both her life and her art. She was involved in controversial endeavours, such as the spiritualist subculture and the suffrage movement, both of which advocated gender equality and counter-normative expression. She also had a keen interest in the concept of death, related no doubt to her involvement in the spiritualist movement, which included dabbling in mediumship and seances. This morbid fascination, and her rejection of gender binaries, combined to produce some of her most captivating paintings, which deserve far greater attention than they have thus far received in the already limited scholarship on De Morgan’s work.
Born in London to wealthy upper-class parents, De Morgan was expected to conform to a certain lifestyle; pursuing a career as a professional artist was not deemed suitable for a young lady of her social standing. After De Morgan’s death, her sister Wilhelmina Stirling produced the biography William De Morgan and His Wife (1922). Despite an overwhelming focus on William, the few passages relating to Evelyn De Morgan’s life and work are useful in painting a picture of her rebellious character, and the initial resistance of her family to any artistic ambitions. As was present in many upper-middle class households,
There was a suspicion – though not formulated in actual words – that painting as a profession savoured of a connexion with trade – of work which could be bought or sold; moreover, it was linked to a Bohemianism which could not be tolerated in good society (Stirling, 174).
De Morgan was expected instead to marry well and to assume the role of an elegant lady of leisure, maintaining the untarnished reputation of the family. However, it was clear from an early age that she had other ideas, developing an obsession with drawing and painting, which led to the neglect of all other pursuits. She detested what she repeatedly termed ‘young-ladyism’, viewing dress fittings and afternoon teas as a gross waste of precious time which could be spent on perfecting her art (Smith, 22). Her mother greatly resented her indifference to ‘young-ladyism’, and reputedly stated, “I want a daughter, not an artist!" (Stirling, 175). Both parents tried relentlessly to dissuade her from taking her chosen path: ‘the mandate went forth that she was not to paint, while her drawing-master was secretly given instructions to tell her that she had no artistic talent, and would be well advised to turn her energies in another direction (Stirling, 19). She was therefore forced to use underhand tactics, hiding her painting and drawing materials behind a locked door, or in a ‘cleverly arranged hidden compartment at the bottom of her bag’ (Stirling, 19). When, one day, her parents discovered her secret, their daughter’s hysteria and vehement dedication to the profession forced them to submit to her will: ‘the girl burst into excited tears, and declared that she had been forced into deception because she could not live without painting. Her parents finally capitulated, realising the depth of her determination' (Smith, 19). She eventually went on to study at the Slade School of Art, where she won numerous awards.
It was not just in her chosen profession that she defied expectations. She shunned the conventions of femininity, both in appearance and behaviour, donning masculine clothing, and opting to be known by her gender-ambiguous middle name ‘Evelyn’, rather than her first name ‘Mary’. As a child, she was often mistaken for a boy, referred to frequently as ‘handsome rather than pretty’, and engaged in various rough and unladylike activities (Rose, 73). Well into adulthood De Morgan’s wilful androgyny was the cause of much commotion and dispute. At the Slade, her gender-ambiguous name confused her fellow students, who were perplexed at her identity. After winning the scholarship and the first prize for painting from life, she walked past a group of male students examining the list of awardees:
All the names upon it were those of men with the exception of her own, ambiguous as to sex, which headed the list. “Do you know this damned fellow – this Evelyn? Who is he?” she heard them saying angrily as she passed unnoticed through their midst (Stirling, 180).
In order to advance in the art world, De Morgan had to do as the men did, finding innovative ways to bend the rules of the profession.
She was determined to demonstrate that she was on an equal plain to her male competitors, and mimicked them in dress, behaviour and even speech. In an obituary written by her close friend May Morris in 1922, she is described as possessing ‘masculine bonhomie […] with a man’s intelligence and something of a man’s outlook’ (Morris, 17). She wished to cast off any links to ‘young-ladyism’, and continually rejected her mother’s relentless attempts to have her presented at court, writing “I’ll go to the drawing room if you like […] but if I go, I’ll kick the Queen!" (Stirling, 180). Lucy Ella Rose refers to ‘Evelyn’s subversive position as a Victorian masculine woman’ and suggests that it made those around her rather uncomfortable, by forcing them to ‘reconsider […] most basic assumptions about the functions, forms and representations of gender’ (Rose, 73). However, she found herself accepted by London’s unconventional circle of Pre-Raphaelites and their associates, developing friendships with Edward and Georgiana Burne-Jones, William, Jane and May Morris, and Rudyard Kipling and his sister Alice Fleming, among others. Many of these friends were members of the ‘Swinburne School’ – a radical group of artists and writers who championed masculine femininity and feminine masculinity, named so after Algernon Charles’ Swinburne’s ode to an androgynous statue ‘Hermaphroditus’ (1863). It therefore comes as no surprise that, like that of Edward Burne-Jones and his circle, Evelyn De Morgan’s artwork is littered with androgynous figures; she shunned Victorian gender stereotypes, advocating self-expression and attempting to escape the strict bonds of gender binaries.
An example I wish to focus on in this article is her androgynous depictions of the figure of death. In the London De Morgan Foundation archives, I came across a series of De Morgan’s preparatory sketches, and one in particular caught my attention.
Fig 1. London, Crown Fine Art, De Morgan Foundation Archives, Evelyn De Morgan Sketchbook, Archive Box 31, D_SBK3.
The figure is entirely obscured by drapery, leaving any gender-specific characteristics to the spectator’s imagination; the figure of death takes the lives of all genders, favouring none, and it would therefore be logical to present it as a mysteriously androgynous figure.
This sketch was a preparatory study for the painting Love’s Passing which depicts two lovers distracted by their own mortality; in the background we can see the figure of death leading an elderly lady to the riverbank, supposedly to reunite her with her departed lover at the end of her life.
Fig 2. Evelyn De Morgan, Love's Passing, 1883-84, Oil on Canvas, 718mm x 1099mm, Wightwick Manor, Wolverhampton.
Death, as an intimidatingly dark figure equipped with an axe, is depicted as both a blessing and a curse in this image. To the young lovers in the foreground, reading a Roman poem by Tibullus about grief following a lover’s death, it is something to be feared and dreaded. They are in vivid colour in contrast to the death-tainted darkness behind them, representing youth and vigour, and yet they cannot help but dwell on the brevity of their existence. The female’s gaze in particular is sorrowful and resigned; she strokes her lover’s chest whilst contemplating his inevitable demise. However, to the stooping woman behind the pair, relying on a walking cane and with a downcast eye, death seems to come as a relief. Despite the towering stature and formidable axe, death’s guiding hand does not seem forceful or ungentle; the lady is supported from behind on her journey. Death stays close, shrouding her in a protective gesture, and the place she has been led to is not unpleasant; the river, arched bridge and mountainous landscape possess Edenic overtones. De Morgan painted this portrait in the lead up to her marriage to William De Morgan, who was sixteen years her senior; she was therefore likely to be preoccupied by thoughts of her husband dying before her, like the female lover in this image. However, the implicit message seems to be that death is not something to be dreaded or resented; it could be a release, with the promise of a greater afterlife. Perhaps this thought was one that comforted her when reviewing her upcoming nuptials.
This was not actually the first time she had painted the figure of death. She had a lifelong preoccupation with the concept, which stemmed from her spiritual side and belief in an afterlife; it intensified in her later years with the mass slaughter of the first world war. However, her first depiction was in 1880, when she produced The Angel of Death in which death is the focal figure, comforting a young woman in apparent distress with a gentle embrace.
Fig 3. Evelyn De Morgan, The Angel of Death, 1880, Oil on Canvas, 930mm x 1128mm, Cannon Hall, Barnsley.
The arid desert landscape, with barren plants, to the left of the image seems to signify the hardship the young woman has faced in her past, whilst the Edenic river scene to the right of death, complete with blooming flowers, indicates the pleasant afterlife ahead of her. As with Love’s Passing, death comes as a relief for a soul in need, helping someone in a weaker position with benevolence and guidance. This time death’s face is not obscured, and we can see soft human feet and hands, but we are no closer to attributing a gender; interestingly, the model used was male, but the delicate features (small, soft hands and feet, and subtle facial markings) as well as the strikingly maternal pose, make him sway more towards a state of womanhood. Like the angels of Burne-Jones, the face is entirely androgynous, lying somewhere between an effeminate male and a masculine female, and the drapery cleverly hides any indication of breasts or genitalia.
The implication in both The Angel of Death and Love’s Passing is that the divine figure of death is somehow above and beyond petty conventions of gender; it is an entirely irrelevant construct in this context. All are treated equally by death, whether male, female or other; there is no gender discrimination, and we are all placed on an equal plain when facing our own inevitable mortality. De Morgan has attempted to view death as one not unlike herself – a free spirit, indifferent to distinctions of gender. In her paintings, those with the most power and agency are often androgynous; they are not chained by societal restrictions and expectations. There is therefore power in defying gender convention, which correlates with her encouragement of women to engage in the suffrage movement and to rebel against their assigned ‘role’ in society. The figure of death is a tool with which to draw attention to the restrictive and unjust nature of Victorian gender dichotomies, as well as to comfort those who may be coming to terms with their own mortality, and that of their loved ones.
Morris, May, 'Evelyn Pickering De Morgan - An Obituary', in The Morning Post, 29th March 1922
Rose, Lucy Ella, Suffragist Artists in Partnership - Gender, Word, and Image (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019)
Smith, Elise Lawton, Evelyn Pickering De Morgan and the Allegorical Body (Teanack: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002)
Stirling, A.M.W, William De Morgan and His Wife (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1922)