Mary Evelyn Pickering De Morgan (1855-1919)

Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919). The Undiscovered Country/The City of Light. 1894. Oil on canvas. On extended loan from Columbia Museum of Art, Columbia, SC.

Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919).
The Undiscovered Country/The City of Light. 1894. Oil on canvas.
On extended loan from Columbia Museum of Art, Columbia, SC.

About this painting:  "Unlike her earlier more commercial works [that tended] to be based on historic/mythological paintings, …  towards the end of her career, Evelyn [De Morgan]'s work became more personal and symbolic and expressed ideas formed from her involvement in Spiritualism, the effects of War, and an introspective look at the journey through life towards death. … The Undiscovered Country fits into the [latter category] and contains overt symbolism taken from Christian iconography.”

“The imagery is derived from the Book of Revelation and is a visual representation of the spiritual transition that occurs at death. The painting shows a young woman dressed in blue robes (symbolising wisdom and heaven) who has come to the end of an arduous journey through an inhospitable landscape. Having just crossed a perilous stream (symbolised by the skull) she is about to emerge from the darkness, towards the golden light bathed Kingdom of Heaven.

 The title of the painting is taken from the "To Be or Not To Be" soliloquy in Shakespeare's Hamlet, where Hamlet agonizes over whether it is better to endure this known life, however miserable, or to enter the unknown afterlife, “the undiscover'd country.” 

When the painting was exhibited at a London gallery in 1907 it was accompanied by the following poem written by Evelyn De Morgan.

Out of the darkness of night,

Out of the pain and the cold,
Speeds the soul on her lonesome way,
Till, blinded by dazzling light,
Undreamed of splendours unfold
The land of undying-day. 

Evelyn Pickering De Morgan around 1900.

Evelyn Pickering De Morgan around 1900.

About the artist: Combined with her feminist and anti-war beliefs, Evelyn De Morgan's lifelong interest in spiritualism led her to paint beautiful and physically strong female figures overcoming obstacles in the physical world to reach spiritual empowerment and redemption in the afterlife. Physically, her figures contrasted markedly to the more typical paintings of women by De Morgan's male contemporaries, particularly the dreamlike floaty wisps envisioned by the Pre-Raphaelites with whom De Morgan has been associated because of the abundant detail, intense colors and complexity of her compositions.

On the morning of her seventeenth birthday on August 30th 1872, Evelyn Pickering wrote in her diary: “Art is eternal, but life is short ... I will make up for it now, I have not a moment to lose.” She convinced her reluctant parents to send her to art school (the renowned Slade School of Fine art in London), and she also spent time in Europe studying Renaissance art. While at Slade, she received many medals and honors, and was exhibited throughout London.

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De Morgan met her future husband at a costume ball for which, in a painterly wink, she had dressed as Rose Madder. They were married in 1887. "[The ceramicist] William (1839-1917) and [the painter] Evelyn (1855-1919) De Morgan were both highly respected artists in their own right; ... and together they became involved in many of the leading issues of the day including prison reform, pacifism and spiritualism."  Though this undated photograph might not suggest it, by contemporary accounts their marriage was mutually fond and supportive, and they shared a well-documented sense of humor. One friend observed that "It is indeed unusual to find two people so gifted, so entirely in harmony in their art, who acted and reacted on each other's genius. Their romance is one before which the pen falters..."

The De Morgans lived and were active in London throughout their marriage. "Together they were also involved with the British Suffragette movement. Evelyn was a signatory for the Declaration in Favour of Women's Suffrage in 1889 and William ...  served as Vice President of the Men's League for Women's Suffrage in 1913."  They had no children.

Evelyn De Morgan first exhibited her work in 1877 in London, and continued to be critically and commercially successful as an artist for many years. During her lifetime she produced about one hundred oil paintings and over 300 drawings.

The principal source for information in this post is the web site of the De Morgan Foundation, a non-profit organization that cares for, exhibits and lends a large collection of De Morgan works and artifacts. The Wikipedia article on Evelyn De Morgan includes an extensive list of citation links to additional information.

The source for the specifics about the painting is a September 19, 2017 e-mail from Claire Longworth, Curator at the De Morgan Foundation in London, to Jon Carfagno, HMA's Executive Director.

Read here about how HMA came to borrow this painting from the Columbia [S.C.] Museum.

Post by Karin Borei, HMA Project Coordinator, writer and editor as needed, and HMA blogger since March 2015.