Evelyn De Morgan's Alchemical Visions of Aging

In the final years of the Industrial Revolution, seven young British artists formed a secret society. Their mission—to overturn the mechanistic approach to painting promoted by the Royal Academy.

Instead, they took inspiration from late Medieval and early Renaissance art—that luminous era before the Italian painter Raphael standardized taste.

They called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Their canvases emphasized minute detail, mythic subjects, and vibrant scenery. They brought dreams, legends, and poetry to life.

The Brotherhood became notorious for their models, whom they called “stunners.” They plucked these women from the lower classes, set them on a pedestal, and often destroyed them through neglect, jealousy, competition, and/or obsession.

One woman escaped that fate. Jane Morris (nee Burden) was barely eighteen when the Brotherhood’s founder, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, discovered her at a theater in the commoner seats below him.

Over his lifetime, he painted her as Astarte, Beatrice, Guinevere, Mnemosyne, Pandora, Persephone. His extravagant transformations would rival those of Adobe Photoshop, had it existed then. 

But nothing could rival Jane’s reinvention of herself. Decades after Rossetti’s death, we finally glimpse the real Jane Morris in three paintings by Evelyn de Morgan, a second-generation Pre-Raphaelite who broke away from the Brotherhood.

Together Jane and Evelyn explored the myth and mystery of aging gracefully—or not.

The Visage of the Century

Jane Burden was a stablehand’s daughter doomed to servitude when Rossetti discovered her. Their attraction was mutual, passionate, and deep.

But Rossetti was already engaged to Elizabeth “Lizzie” Siddal, the most recognized face of her day. Another Brotherhood member had discovered Lizzie selling hats nine years earlier. After hours lying in a bath gone cold, Lizzie almost died of pneumonia so that John Everett Millais could create the famous image above of Ophelia, Hamlet’s doomed fiancé.

Jane Burden became Rossetti’s muse. Through him, she met her future husband William Morris, who was Rossetti’s best friend. Morris created only one easel painting in his life, which featured Jane as “Le Belle Iseult.” On the back of the canvas, he shyly wrote, “I cannot paint you, but I can love you.” He proposed, and Jane accepted.

By her own admission, she never loved William, but she knew he was a good man. In the Victorian era, few could marry for love. During their year-long engagement, Morris hired the best tutors for the barely-literate Jane to make her into a gentleman’s wife.

To say he succeeded denigrates her achievements. By anyone’s account, Jane Burden Morris was a genius. She perfected an upper-class accent, learned French and Italian, and read voraciously. She had no problem conversing with her husband’s friends.

Jane also became an expert weaver and embroiderer. These may sound like typical Victorian accomplishments. But William Morris never produced another painting because he founded the Arts and Crafts Movement, which influenced décor and design for the next fifty years. Jane’s tapestries, based on his drawings, grace the walls of several museums.

Later in life, no one believed Jane’s humble roots. In 1914, a few months after she died, George Bernard Shaw (her daughter’s ex-lover) staged a play titled Pygmalion. He most likely based his heroine, Eliza Doolittle, on Jane. Audrey Hepburn would make this role famous in My Fair Lady

A year after Jane and William Morris wed, Rossetti finally married Lizzie Siddal. But Rosetti’s philandering and the pressure of being a supermodel proved too much for Lizzie. She overdosed on laudanum two years later.

Within three years, Jane and Rossetti started an affair with William Morris’s tacit knowledge. But Rossetti, unhinged by guilt, fell into depression and addiction. Jane eventually left him, though they stayed friends. Dante Gabriel Rossetti died at age 54 from the effects of choral hydrate dependence.

Before his death, Rossetti described himself to a close friend as a man who,

after engaging himself to one woman in all honour and good faith, had fallen in love with another, and then gone on to marry the first out of a mistaken sense of loyalty and a fear of giving pain—with disastrous consequences.

A few years before he died, Rossetti painted Jane for the last time. As Astarte Syriaca, she strides toward us, the dark-haired primordial goddess of war and love, in her prime at age 40. After this painting, Jane disappears from canvas for a quarter of a century.

The Sisterhood Rises

With Rossetti’s death, a new generation of artists came into their own.

Women infiltrated the Pre-Raphaelites, not as models, but as painters. Evelyn de Morgan, born a few years before Rossetti discovered Jane Morris, was one of them. Evelyn came from both money and distant royalty. She and Jane couldn’t have differed more.

Yet Evelyn never aspired to become a Victorian lady. On the morning of her seventeenth birthday, she wrote in her diary,

At the beginning of each year I say ‘I will do something’ and at the end I have done nothing. Art is eternal, but life is short…I will make up for it now, I have not a moment to lose.

She persuaded her parents to let her attend the Slade School of Art, which allowed women to draw from figure models—modestly draped, of course. But it was still revolutionary. Until then, art schools herded women toward flowers and landscapes or ceramic painting.

After Slade, Evelyn apprenticed with her uncle, a famous portraitist, in Florence. By age 22, she had her first exhibition at the London’s Grosvenor Gallery. By age 28, she was earning a living through her art.

Evelyn’s friends included artists Emily Ford, Marie Spartali and Violet Paget. During this group’s frequent gatherings, Violet noted they discussed and dabbled in “fantastic, weird, curious, cigarettes, bonbons, and Baudelaire.”

At age 32, long after the Victorian “sell-by” date, Evelyn married ceramicist William De Morgan. Despite their fourteen-year age difference, the union flourished. A friend observed, “It is indeed unusual to find two people so gifted, so entirely in harmony in their art…Their romance is one before which the pen falters.”

The De Morgans shared another interest—spiritualism. William De Morgan’s mother, Sophia, was clairvoyant. She encouraged William and Evelyn’s forays into metaphysics and spiritual alchemy.

Early in his career, William de Morgan worked at William Morris’s interior design firm. The two became life-long friends. Jane Morris and Evelyn no doubt met through them, but their friendship would have to wait. William Morris was dying from tuberculosis and Jane became his full-time nurse.

During the quarter-century after Jane retired from modeling, she raised two daughters and partnered in advancing the century’s most exciting decorative arts movement. George Bernard Shaw wrote that, despite everything, Morris adored his Janey to the end:

He could not sit in the same room without his arm around her waist. His voice changed when he spoke to her as it changed to no one else…

In 1903, seven years after William’s death, Jane Morris and Evelyn de Morgan finally embarked on their matchless exploration of midlife and beyond, one that envisioned a choice between jealousy and stagnation—or knowledge and enlightenment.

Alchemical Visions of Aging

In the following three paintings, Evelyn uses Jane to portray a jealous sorceress, a powerful alchemist, and an enlightened queen. Her color palette reflects alchemical symbolism:

  • Black—the raw material of self, unhealthy ego. Black dragons represent death and decay.
  • White—separation, purification, the breakdown of old conditioning. The white rose represents the force of the soul.
  • Red—unity, transformation, integration. The red lion represents the force of nature under control.
  • Gold—enlightenment, the plane of creation, complete balance of the masculine and feminine.

(Art scholar Elise Lawton Smith first noted Evelyn’s alchemical color choices in The Love Potion, but not the other two paintings.)

These four colors trace an individual’s evolution from ignorance to enlightenment. These depictions specifically show how women can use aging as a path to awakening. That Jane Morris, at age 64, came out of retirement to model them hints at a radical motivation.

What are she and Evelyn trying to tell us?

Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund (1903)

“Don’t destroy your soul jealously grasping at lost youth.”

Here, Queen Eleanor is no queen, but an evil sorceress. She brings a vial of poison, representing her anger at lost youth, to kill the Fair Rosamund, her husband’s mistress.

A couple frozen in stained glass echo her refusal to accept this stage of her life. In alchemy, man and woman represent the union of opposites that leads to the spiritual gold of enlightenment.

Black dragons of unhealthy ego swirl around her. The white rose in the lower right corner represents the woman’s sacred center, nipped in the bud, dying.

The Love Potion (1903)

“You are your own beloved.”

According to scholar Elise Lawton Smith, The Love Potion explores “the nature of female authority through the practice of sorcery,” citing the black cat as proof.

But this woman is no sorceress, she’s a powerful alchemist. She owns a treasure-trove of books about alchemy, including one by Paracelsus, the most famous alchemist of all.

The devoted black cat at her feet shows she has tamed her ego. The red lions behind her, nature under control, confirm this. Her gold dress symbolizes her commitment to enlightenment.

A couple embraces outside her window, so perhaps she successfully made the potion for them. Or maybe this alchemist makes it for herself—a self-love potion.

The Hour Glass (1903)

“You are the Queen of your Destiny.”

Here is a true Queen in repose, graced by a tapestry of loving couples (perhaps a nod to Jane Morris’s museum tapestries). She has attained the union of opposites, the spiritual gold.

Through wisdom and experience, she has become herself. In the hourglass, the downward flow of physical vitality is balanced by the upward flow of spirit.

Outside the door, the angel of dawn awaits. A Hawthorn blooms. It represents cleansing and preparation, the sacred marriage. She is ready for the next stage of her life, knowing it may be death—or something far greater. The white rose, her sacred center, is now whole.  

“In the driest whitest stretch of pain’s infinite desert, I lost my sanity and found this rose.” ~Rumi

In This Issue

Winter 2017


* Embracing Our Sovereignty (Now!)

Exploring the Gaian Tarot (Coming Soon)


Frida Kahlo: Fashion as the Art of Being (Coming Soon)

Oscar Wilde vs. the Corset (Coming Soon)



* Chateau de Gudanes: A Grand Lady Reigns Again (Now!)

Casa Bohemia and Beyond (Coming Soon)


* Evelyn de Morgan's Alchemical Visions of Aging (Now!)

Flamenco's Gypsy Queens (Coming Soon)

 Goddess Lore

When Money Was A Goddess (Coming Soon)

The Path to Brigid's Forge (Coming Soon)

Myth & Fairy Tale

Honoring the 25th Anniversary of Women Who Run with the Wolves (Coming Soon)

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