Evelyn de Morgan, Night and Sleep, 1878, The De Morgan Foundation, Compton, Surrey.
There is something I find indefinably exquisite about this painting, something remarkable about its combination of colours and forms, like the flavours and textures of a well cooked dish, a delight, and one that should not be savoured too quickly. To see what I mean, just have a look at this detail.
Even without knowing anything about the painting, this is a wonderful combination of line, form and colour. A hand hangs down, index finger slightly taut, almost like the hand of God in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. The arm is held, ever so lightly, by a paler hand, forefinger extended towards the darker wrist, the middle finger curved back further and the others more, so they are out of sight. The sleeve of this second arm is a cloth of two colours, an almost electric pink and butterscotch, which wrap around each other. A tiny hint of pink can be seen on the downward flick of the butterscotch corner, and, at another point further right, as the one folds back, you see it is lined with the other. These pointed ‘flicks’ of the fabric echo the fingers of the hanging hand, and in between them the folds and hems of the bi-coloured cloth create the overlapping rhythms of a musical duet. There is a poppy in the languid fingers of the lower hand, and three more appear against the pale blue background, picking up the pink of the fabric. Above this pyramid of arm, hands and sleeve, a deeper russet brown appears like a curtain, with a web of threads – of string? – adding to the flowing, echoing rhythms.
The artist, Evelyn de Morgan, was one of the most successful women artists of her day, but her work is only gradually coming back into the public imagination. It’s the same old story. Her career was hard won, she had to fight for it at every stage, but even given her success, she was more or less forgotten after her death. Why is this? Her husband perhaps? Not in this case. She married the ceramicist, and later, novelist, William de Morgan in 1887, and theirs truly was a ‘marriage of true minds’. They shared the same ideas and ideals, and exhibited together both before and after they married. He couldn’t have been more supportive. And neither could she. Someone once said that he had no business sense, and she had little more, but nevertheless it was her success as an artist that kept them going. She was the breadwinner, and she supported his career as a ceramicist from her earnings from the sale of her paintings. She took his name, admittedly, having been born Evelyn Pickering. But she did at least have a name as Evelyn de Morgan – until the first biography of her was written in 1922. It was entitled ‘William de Morgan and His Wife’. Before you get worked up at the all-too-infuriating-but-let’s-face-it-we-expected-that chauvinism of it all, this book was written by a woman, Wilhemina Stirling. Or to put it another way, Wilhemina Stirling née Pickering. Evelyn’s name was written out of history by her own sister. I’m sure she didn’t mean to, but Wilhemina was, it seems, a real product of her time – or, at least, a credit to her mother’s upbringing. Mrs Pickering firmly believed that women who received payment for their work were, ‘not only unfeminine but petit-bourgeois’, and at one point was heard to exclaim, ‘I want a daughter, not an artist’. And this, despite the fact that art was in the family. Evelyn’s great aunts had studied under Gainsborough. Mind you, they got married and gave up painting, which was an accomplishment for a young lady, but not a career. Evelyn’s Uncle – her unforgiving mother’s brother – was John Roddam Spencer-Stanhope, who could be described as a second generation Pre-Raphaelite. In many respects he was her saviour.
She was given drawing lessons at 15 – as one of her ladylike accomplishments, of course – but by 17 was determined to paint. It was then that she started classes at the South Kensington National Art Training School – which is now the Royal College of Art – only to move to the Slade the following year. In 1875, the year before she graduated from the Slade, she visited Italy for the first time, something she would continue to do for the rest of her life. In Florence she stayed at first with her Uncle, Spencer-Stanhope, who also introduced her to other members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Her work has suffered from comparison with these two men, being seen by some as a weak imitation of both. But however much they might have inspired her, her work was very much her own, and something altogether different.
Night and Sleep is a relatively early work, painted in 1878, at the age of 23. Night, wearing the rose-red of sunset and carrying a dark veil with which to cover the brightness of the day, leads a drowsy Sleep by the arm. The veil frames the figures and echoes their forms – billowing above her right elbow and flexed in the same way, the hand trailing behind, or flowing out between Sleep’s right knee and his left, an echo of each. He holds a bunch of poppies close to his chest in his left arm, scattering them carelessly with his somnolent right.
With several visits to Italy already under her belt, the experience had clearly been valuable for Pickering (she wouldn’t marry for another 9 years, so this would seem to be a better name to use). Botticelli was someone who enchanted many of the Pre-Raphaelites, and he fascinated her. She regularly quoted from him, taking forms, and re-purposing them, as here, or borrowing characters and giving them new life, as she did with the Primavera. In this case the inspiration is Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (Picture Of The Day 8).
Of the two winds, one is undoubtedly Zephyr, the other, perhaps, Austrus, if we assume that Botticelli was taking Alberti at face value (see POTD 8 & 37). They are more upright than Night and Sleep, but this is because they are more ‘active’. The members of both pairs are closely dependent on one another, entwined in each other’s arms, their draperies overlapping, and seen against a sky strewn with flowers. In Botticelli’s case, they are roses, the flowers of love, and one of the attributes of Venus. For Pickering, they are poppies. Any fan of The Wizard of Oz will be able to tell you why: ‘Poppies… poppies… poppies will put them to sleep!’ Of course Evelyn Pickering would never have seen the film – or read the book for that matter – but she could easily have read the Aeneid. A bit obscure, you might think, but among her many ‘accomplishments’ were Latin and Greek, both language and literature. She also studied French, German and Italian, as it happens. In book 4 of the Aeneid, Virgil discusses the Garden of the Hesperides, with its tree that grows golden apples. Somewhere around line 486 he says that the Guardian of this Garden,
… protects the fruit
of that enchanting tree, and scatters there
her slumb’rous poppies mixed with honey-dew.
No need of Virgil to understand this symbolism though. For the Victorians the poppy was the main source of opium, and therefore laudanum, used for pain relief and to enable sleep – most notably in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. However, once more her travels to Italy might have given her inspiration. She visited Rome on her own, which would have been remarkable for a woman in the 19th Century. Even in London her parents hadn’t allowed her to travel to the Slade un-chaperoned. I don’t know if there are records of what she saw in Italy’s new capital, but given her interest in art she must have visited the Museo Borghese, home to Alessandro Algardi’s delightful Allegory of Sleep (c. 1635).
A drowsy equivalent of Cupid, this small boy has butterfly wings, clutches poppy seed-heads in his left hand, and wears them as a garland in his hair. He is sprawled asleep on a black cloth, the high polish of the black marble making it stand out from the rougher ground, textured with the marks of a small chisel. His arms, the right wrapped round his head, the left by his side, are not unlike Night’s, whereas his legs are closer to Sleep’s. And like them his form stands out against a dark cloth. I have no idea if Evelyn Pickering saw this endearing, sensuous, sculpture, but it would make a great deal of sense if she had.
Throughout I have assumed that ‘Night’ is female, and ‘Sleep’ is male, so I was surprised to read on the De Morgan Foundation website that, ‘Night floats through the evening sky, his red robes reminiscent of the sunset, and his billowing cloak darkening the sky behind him’. Meanwhile Wikipedia (OK, hardly decisive, I know) suggests, ‘dark-haired Night guides her son Sleep’, probably quoting from Evelyn Pickering de Morgan and the Allegorical Body by Elise Lawton-Smith (2002). Another blog, to whom I am indebted for the quotation from the Aeneid, talks of, ‘… a young woman (probably) wearing long red robes…’ and goes on to say that, ‘Her left arm is intertwined with the right arm of what is probably a young man’.
I can’t even see it as ambiguous. Night is definitely female – her long robe may wrap tightly round her legs revealing their form, but it does keep her covered to the ankle, and down to the wrists. It is typical of the dresses worn by women in Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic paintings, and not unlike a Greek peplos. By contrast, Sleep’s legs and arms are revealed: he is wearing something more like the chiton, or tunic, worn by Greek men. The relative pallor of her skin compared to his more olive tones, seen especially where her hand holds his arm, also suggests the standard contrast of female and male. Apart from anything else, Pickering’s knowledge of Italian would have suggested as much: La Notte – Night – is feminine, whereas Il Sonno – Sleep is masculine. Night could, perhaps, be considered a bit masculine in appearance – but not unlike many of Rossetti’s female figures. Indeed, she is not at all unlike his favourite model, Jane Burden, one of the great Pre-Raphaelite beauties, who married William Morris, only to have an affair with Rossetti, and who would later become one of Evelyn Pickering de Morgan’s greatest friends.
Is Night the mother of Sleep? Maybe, although she does look rather young… They clearly belong together, though, given the counterpoint of their bodies, their parallel trailing legs, and the simple ease with which they get along, Sleep drawn on by the lightest touch of Night’s hand. Their harmony is expressed through their hues. Sleep’s cap is even brighter than his poppies, Night’s scarf the same green as their stems. The pinks, reds, russets and darker browns take us through the spectrum of crepuscular colour while their horizontal forms and half-closed eyes encourage us to sleep.
The last time I was in Newcastle, not so far from where I am socially distanced, I was excited to see that the Laing Art Gallery was hosting an exhibition of the work of William and Evelyn de Morgan, only to be disappointed to find out that they don’t open on a Sunday. How bizarre! Never mind, I thought, I’ll be back before it closes in June… Who knows, at this stage, if will re-open? Such a pity – they were both rather special artists, and they worked very well together. Look out for her!