Evelyn De Morgan: A Luminous Rebel in Victorian Art

Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919) was a luminary in Victorian art, a period renowned for its strict social norms and conservative aesthetic values. As a woman and an artist, De Morgan was an anomaly in her era, characterized not only by her exceptional talent but also by her willingness to challenge the status quo both in her life and through her art. Her works reflect a distinct blend of the Pre-Raphaelite influences of her time and the early whispers of Symbolism and Art Nouveau that would follow.

classic and original painting reproductions


Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Early Life and Artistic Training
  3. Themes and Influences
  4. Techniques and Innovations
  5. Artistic Contributions and Legacy
  6. Conclusion
  7. Questions and Answers



De Morgan’s art is especially notable for its vibrant colors, mystical themes, and the often subtle yet powerful commentary on the roles and rights of women, making her a pioneer among feminist artists. Her bold choices in subject matter—ranging from biblical and mythological scenes to more introspective themes of spirituality and personal agency—set her apart from her contemporaries and underscored her commitment to using her art as a form of social critique.

This introduction to Evelyn De Morgan will explore how her upbringing, education, and personal convictions shaped her artistic journey. We will delve into her unique style, which seamlessly integrated traditional narratives with radical views that questioned and expanded the boundaries of Victorian art. Through this exploration, readers will gain insight into why De Morgan remains an important figure in the art world and a source of inspiration for those who advocate for change and challenge societal norms.


Early Life and Artistic Training

Evelyn De Morgan was born Evelyn Pickering in 1855 to a wealthy family that encouraged her intellectual and artistic pursuits—an unusual stance for the Victorian era, particularly for women. Her supportive environment was a critical factor in her early exposure to the arts and her subsequent decision to pursue an artistic career. This foundation was pivotal, as many women of her time were discouraged from such endeavors, often confined to the domestic sphere.

De Morgan’s formal training began at the Slade School of Fine Art, one of the first art schools in the UK to admit women. At Slade, she received a rigorous education that was rare for women artists of the era, who were typically limited to private lessons if they received any formal training at all. The Slade School emphasized life drawing and anatomy, allowing De Morgan to hone her skills in ways that were traditionally reserved for male artists. This training not only refined her technical abilities but also emboldened her to explore themes and styles that were not typical of female artists at the time.

During her studies, De Morgan was heavily influenced by the burgeoning Pre-Raphaelite movement, which rebelled against the conventional art practices of the Royal Academy. The Pre-Raphaelites emphasized a return to the detail, color, and complex compositions of Quattrocento Italian art. De Morgan was particularly drawn to their use of vivid colors and detailed representations of nature, as well as their focus on literary and mythological themes.

Moreover, De Morgan’s artistic vision was shaped by her personal convictions. She was an ardent supporter of the women’s suffrage movement and a pacifist, beliefs that deeply influenced her choice of subjects and themes in her paintings. Her works often featured strong, ethereal women and were imbued with a sense of spiritual and moral introspection, reflecting her views on the potential and plight of women in society.


Themes and Influences

Evelyn De Morgan’s artistic repertoire was marked by a rich tapestry of themes, ranging from the spiritual and mythological to the deeply personal and social. Her work often delved into the realms of allegory and symbolism, using these as vehicles to explore and critique the social issues of her time, particularly those relating to gender and the roles of women.

Spiritualism and Mythology:
De Morgan was deeply influenced by the spiritualist movements of the late 19th century, which is vividly reflected in her art. Spiritualism, which posited that the living could communicate with the dead, offered a framework through which she explored themes of life, death, and the soul’s immortality. Her paintings such as “The Valley of Shadows” demonstrate this preoccupation with the afterlife and the spiritual journeys of the soul. These works often feature ethereal figures and dreamlike landscapes, imbued with a sense of otherworldly tranquility or melancholy.

The Valley of Shadows by Evelyn De Morgan
The Valley of Shadows by Evelyn De Morgan

Feminist Undertones:
A recurring motif in De Morgan’s oeuvre is the depiction of strong, often divine or mythological female figures. This was a reflection not only of her interest in these subjects but also of her feminist beliefs. Paintings like “Helen of Troy” and “Queen Eleanor & Fair Rosamund” showcase powerful women who are not merely subjects of beauty or tragedy but are complex characters with agency. These depictions were subversive for the time, challenging the traditional Victorian ideal of femininity and passive womanhood.

Helen of Troy by Evelyn De Morgan
Helen of Troy by Evelyn De Morgan. See it at the de Morgan Centre, London


Queen Eleanor & Fair Rosamund by Evelyn De Morgan
Queen Eleanor & Fair Rosamund by Evelyn De Morgan


Social and Political Commentary:
De Morgan also used her art to comment on social and political issues, including war and peace. As a pacifist, her response to the horrors of the Boer War and World War I was poignantly expressed through her work. “S.O.S.” painted in 1914, is a powerful example of her condemnation of war, depicting a group of helpless, grieving women beneath a stormy, chaotic sky. This painting, like many others, illustrates her adeptness at weaving political critique into her canvases without sacrificing aesthetic or symbolic depth.

S.O.S by Evelyn De Morgan
S.O.S by Evelyn De Morgan

Artistic Influences:
Her style, though rooted in Pre-Raphaelitism with its bright colors and attention to detail, also incorporated influences from the Symbolists, particularly in her later works. The Symbolist movement’s focus on emotion and the mystical allowed De Morgan to develop a more fluid, less rigid approach to composition and form, evident in works like “The Love Potion”.

The Love Potion by Evelyn De Morgan
The Love Potion by Evelyn De Morgan. See it at the de Morgan Centre, London


Techniques and Innovations

Evelyn De Morgan’s artistic techniques are as distinctive as the thematic content of her work, marked by a harmonious blend of traditional Pre-Raphaelite styles and innovative approaches that anticipated some aspects of modern art movements like Symbolism and Art Nouveau. Her technical prowess not only enhanced the visual appeal of her paintings but also deepened the thematic and narrative layers within them.

Color and Light:
De Morgan was renowned for her exceptional use of color, which she manipulated to create mood, symbolize concepts, or emphasize certain aspects of her paintings. She often chose palettes that reflected the spiritual or emotional undertone of her subjects, using luminous, ethereal shades to imbue her scenes with a sense of otherworldliness. For example, in “The Love Potion,” the use of vibrant blues and rich golds not only captures the viewer’s eye but also conveys a mystical, almost magical quality that complements the narrative of enchantment and allure.

Composition and Form:
De Morgan’s compositions were innovative in their dynamic and sometimes unconventional arrangements. She frequently employed flowing lines and integrated forms, which helped guide the viewer’s eye across the canvas and emphasize the interconnectedness of the subjects and their environments. This technique, while rooted in the Pre-Raphaelite tradition of detailed, narrative-driven art, also hints at the more fluid, abstract forms characteristic of Art Nouveau.

Symbolic Detailing:
Detail and symbolism were integral to De Morgan’s work, reflecting her deep engagement with mythological and allegorical subjects. Each element in her paintings, from the smallest flower to the positioning of the figures, was laden with meaning. In “Cassandra,” for example, the foreboding sky and the tumultuous sea in the background symbolize impending doom, echoing Cassandra’s tragic gift of prophecy.

Innovative Use of Materials:
De Morgan was also experimental with her materials, often mixing different media to achieve the desired effects. She sometimes used metallic pigments to add shimmer and depth to her work, a technique that made her paintings particularly striking when viewed under different lighting conditions.


Artistic Contributions and Legacy

Evelyn De Morgan’s artistic journey was marked not only by her unique visual style but also by her profound impact on the art world, particularly in terms of challenging the societal norms of her time. Her contributions went beyond mere aesthetics, embedding deep social, spiritual, and feminist themes into the fabric of Victorian and Edwardian art.

Pioneering Feminist Themes:
De Morgan was a trailblazer in incorporating feminist themes into her art. By portraying strong, mythical, and historical female figures who defy conventional roles, she provided a new narrative for women in art. Her paintings often depicted women not as mere objects of beauty or moral lessons but as complex individuals with agency and strength. This approach was revolutionary in an era when women’s roles were largely confined and prescribed.

Influence on Later Movements:
While firmly rooted in the Pre-Raphaelite tradition, De Morgan’s work also anticipated elements of later artistic movements such as Symbolism and Art Nouveau. Her use of flowing lines, ethereal palettes, and integrated forms influenced a generation of artists who sought to convey more abstract and expressive content in their works. Her visionary approach helped bridge the gap between 19th-century art and the modernist styles that would emerge in the early 20th century.

Legacy in Modern Times:
Today, Evelyn De Morgan is celebrated not only for her artistic prowess but also for her contributions to social commentary through art. Her works are studied for their rich symbolic language and their insights into Victorian society’s gender dynamics. Museums and galleries around the world continue to exhibit her paintings, ensuring that her voice remains relevant and her art appreciated by new generations of art lovers and critics.

Educational Impact:
De Morgan’s life and work are also integral to discussions in art history courses, particularly those focusing on gender studies and the history of British art. Her career offers a compelling case study of a woman who navigated and challenged the constraints of her time to achieve professional and personal fulfillment.



Evelyn De Morgan’s role as a luminous rebel in Victorian art not only redefined the artistic landscape of her era but also left a lasting impact on how art could be used as a medium for social critique and personal expression. Her bold use of symbolism, profound thematic exploration, and technical innovation helped transcend the typical boundaries faced by women in the art world of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

De Morgan’s paintings are a testament to her dual commitment to aesthetic excellence and social commentary, particularly regarding the roles and perceptions of women. By embedding strong, autonomous female figures within her mythologically and spiritually rich canvases, she challenged the conventional narratives assigned to women in art and society. Her work not only beautified the spaces it adorned but also provoked thought and invited viewers to reconsider the status quo.

Today, Evelyn De Morgan is regarded as a pivotal figure in the transition from Victorian to modern art. Her influence is evident not just in the continued admiration of her work but in the ongoing discussions about gender, art, and society that her paintings still inspire. As we reflect on her contributions, it becomes clear that De Morgan was not just creating art for art’s sake; she was using her canvas to advocate for a deeper understanding of humanity and a more equitable society.


Questions and Answers

What distinguishes Evelyn De Morgan’s work from other Victorian artists?
Evelyn De Morgan distinguished herself through her unique integration of feminist and spiritual themes into classical and mythological narratives. Unlike many of her contemporaries who adhered more strictly to Victorian ideals, De Morgan’s work often challenged societal norms and portrayed women as strong, independent figures, which was groundbreaking for the era.

How did De Morgan’s upbringing influence her artistic career?
Coming from a supportive, culturally enriched family, De Morgan had access to an education and artistic training that many women of her time did not. This early encouragement and exposure to the arts were crucial in shaping her confidence and ambition to pursue a career as a professional artist, allowing her to explore and express her ideas freely and innovatively.

Are there any contemporary artists influenced by De Morgan?
Yes, many contemporary artists draw inspiration from De Morgan’s thematic depth and stylistic techniques, particularly her use of color and symbolism to convey powerful narratives. Her influence is visible in modern artworks that explore similar themes of feminism, mythology, and spiritual introspection.

What role did her personal beliefs play in her artwork?
De Morgan’s personal beliefs, especially her feminist views and her pacifism, deeply influenced her artwork. She used her paintings as platforms to advocate for social reforms, gender equality, and peace, embedding these ideals within the symbolic and narrative layers of her works.

How are De Morgan’s contributions to art history recognized today?
Evelyn De Morgan’s contributions are recognized through her presence in major art collections and exhibitions worldwide. Academic research and art historical studies increasingly acknowledge her role in bridging Victorian and modern art styles, as well as her pioneering efforts in promoting feminist themes through art.