A New View on Evelyn De Morgan

Can art oppose war? Can wars and conflicts be fought with art? Can a work of art influence the thinking of its viewers and create peace? If the English artist Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919) had been asked, she would certainly have answered these questions in the affirmative. Two wars were reflected in her work: the Second Boer War (1899-1902), the last great war of the British Empire, and the First World War (1914-1918), the original catastrophe of the 20th century. Even though the artist was neither mother nor wife of a soldier, she was still deeply moved by the political events of her time and used them in her works.

About fifteen paintings refer directly to those wars.1 However, this number can only be considered an approximate value, since the artist always remained true to her allegorical-symbolistic pictorial language. In 1916, she organized an exhibition at her studio in Fulham, the so-called Red Cross Exhibition.2 None of the thirteen works on display there were for sale, although the entrance fees were donated to the English and Italian Red Cross. These “war allegories ” are usually treated as a separate and self-contained group of works. However, there is reason to suspect that other works referred indirectly to the theme of war, as will be shown below.

Insight into De Morgan’s war-specific pictorial language

In general, a strict dichotomy of good and evil, light and darkness, life and death, as well as war and peace can be observed in these works. Evelyn De Morgan and her husband William were practicing spiritualists and believed in life after death and in the possibility to communicate with the souls of deceased people. The couple published the results of numerous seances and automatic writing anonymously in a book, The Result of an Experiment. The soul of a soldier killed in the Boer War mingled with the numerous voices that contacted De Morgans. His report reveals the pacifist attitude of the artist couple.

The spiritualistic doctrine is also reflected in De Morgan’s works and the often cryptic visual language. Thus the paintings are populated by personified souls who gradually dare to ascend from the dark earthly world to the light-flooded beyond.
This can be seen in S.O.S. . A female figure dressed in white stands on a rock in the middle of a troubled sea that threatens to devour her at any moment. She is surrounded by monsters, winged dragons and snakes. But she doesn’t seem to fear them. She stretches her arms up towards a rainbow-coloured shimmering light source and is certain of her salvation. Since 1908, “S.O.S.” has been the official distress signal. The meaning “Save our Souls” was attributed to the code later, but the soul’s distress call appears paradigmatic in De Morgan’s spiritualistic context.

The artist instrumentalizes her painting into a visual “distress call”. It is aimed at the viewer and aims to draw attention to the real threat posed by the war, which threatens to attack humanity in the form of winged monsters. De Morgan’s outlook is fatalistic. Salvation seems to exist only in the afterlife. One painting that illustrates the mechanism of De Morgan’s war paintings and can therefore be included in this context is The Love Potion.

At first glance it seems to have nothing in common with the “war allegories”. A red-haired woman in a golden yellow robe, traditionally interpreted as a malicious witch,6 has taken a seat in front of an open window and pours a red liquid into a silver cup. Prominently above the chalice and the associated act of pouring, a couple of lovers can be seen in an intimate embrace.

This is the key element

De Morgan used the iconographic formula of the Knight and the White Lady preferably in her early war allegories referring to the Boer War. The Love Potion was created just one year after the end of this war. Examples include Victoria Dolorosa (the painting fell victim to a fire) and Our Lady of Peace. In the latter, the dichotomy between war (the kneeling soldier) and peace (a figure dressed in white reminiscent of the Virgin Mary) is particularly evident. The knight, the epitome of combat readiness, has laid down his weapons and has fallen to his knees in front of the allegory of peace to serve her and no longer the war. He reminds us of Saint George, who represents the British nation. However, this remains the only concrete indication of a specific British perspective.

Rather, De Morgan’s allegories are to be understood as universal messages7 on armed conflicts of all kinds that largely dispense with religious and nation-specific details. Moreover, neither war nor peace are exclusively shown. It is always a matter of bringing the two poles into a harmonious equilibrium. Exactly this moment of the unification is given in The Love Potion. The lovers are placed exactly in the axis of the potion. It seems as if he emerges from their union. So is there some kind of “antidote” brewed here for wars and conflicts of any kind? The term “love potion” would thus take on a completely new meaning. Neither does the redhead want to divide the lovers, as was so often assumed, nor does she want to ensure the continuation of her love. Rather, the two figures are to be understood as “substances” that flow into the healing juice. The fact that The Love Potion has pacifist tendencies may be shown by one of the books below the window, with legible inscriptions.

The interest in Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, the doctor, astrologer and alchemist from the 16th century, experienced a real blossoming in the 19th century, especially in the spiritualist circles in which Evelyn De Morgan moved.8 An innovation of Paracelsus is spagyric, a medical form of alchemy which no longer aimed at the production of gold but of tinctures for healing various ailments. The search for Panacea, a universal panacea, became the philosopher’s stone of the Paracelsan alchemists. Paracelsus was also known as a social reformer and, following Kurt Goldammer and Walter Pagel, was considered a pacifist physician and pioneer of modern pacifism.9 As a physician, he showed his interest in the holistic well-being of his patients. This meant that both an inner and an outer balance had to be striven for. Disturbing factors as well as deadly sources of conflict of any kind, including wars, had to be eliminated. Considering the iconographic formula of the knight with the white woman and the Paracelsan background, it becomes more and more probable that The Love Potion is also based on pacifist ideas.

Once again, reference is made to a voice from The Result of an Experiment that makes clear De Morgan’s own claim to art. The importance of art, and this is essential for De Morgan’s work, goes far beyond aesthetic added value. Art can stimulate, move, change, create truth, harmony and peace. Thus their “war allegories” become their individual response to hatred and war. The fact that her strategy convinced the visitors of the Red Cross Exhibition is shown by the excerpt of a letter the artist received from Felix Moscheles, herself an author and artist. The Love Potion shows the mechanism behind this pictorial strategy, so that the earlier interpretation of the female figure as an accident is not a matter of the individual.