Born in 1855 in London, Evelyn de Morgan is considered to be either a late Pre-Raphaelite or an English Symbolist. She grew up in an upper-middle-class family and was educated at home with her brothers, studying classical literature, several languages, mythology, and science - subjects that were rarely available to girls at the time.
Evelyn’s mother grew up in a family of artists, but she held conservative views concerning the arts in general. According to a biography written by Evelyn De Morgan’s younger sister, Wilhelmina Stirling, Evelyn’s mother would instruct drawing tutors to tell Evelyn that she had little talent as a means to discourage her daughter’s artistic ambition. However, reading from a diary found in the De Morgan Foundation’s archive, it’s clear that Evelyn’s father was far more supportive of Evelyn’s developing aspiration to become a painter, paying for her to have private drawing lessons, and allowing her to travel with her artist uncle to France and Italy, where she studied paintings by Old Masters. On her seventeenth birthday, Evelyn wrote in her diary:
At work a little after 7… 17 today, that is to say seventeen years wasted in eating, dawdling and frittering time away…Art is eternal, but life is short… I will make up for it now, I have not a moment to lose...
In 1873, Evelyn enrolled at the newly established Slade School of Fine Art in London. As one of the first women to attend the school, Evelyn broke with her middle-class upbringing and stereotypical gender-based expectations. To ensure her artwork would be judged on merit, Evelyn submitted her work to competitions under gender-neutral aliases, earning numerous prestigious prizes and medals.
During her time at Slade, Evelyn was a pupil of Sir Edward Poynter, a painter who worked in the popular Aesthetic style. A movement with an emphasis on beauty, self-expression, and sensuality, Evelyn adopted the Aesthetic style to ensure the commercial viability of her paintings. However, she also embedded many of her canvasses with her personal socio-political concerns, motivated by art as a catalyst for change. She was also heavily influenced by spiritualism, particularly after her marriage to William de Morgan in 1887.
De Morgan’s paintings are predominantly figural, exploring the female body through mythological, spiritual, and allegorical frameworks. She also relied on metaphors such as lightness and darkness to express concepts and ideas. Aurora Triumphans is one of Evelyn de Morgan’s seminal artworks. Exhibited in 1886 at the Grosvenor Gallery, London. The painting features Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn, picking off the slackened restraints of Night. Three red-winged angels herald the new day with trumpets, resplendent in golden tunics as a dark-robed Night slinks away in an anonymity offset by Aurora’s relaxed nakedness. Sleep-dazed and still somewhat entangled, Aurora’s wakening triggers the dawn in a triumphant yet humanized narrative, signalling the day through the mastery of ambiguities found in transitional periods of dawn and twilight and sleep to wakefulness. Here, the act of Aurora’s waking is the essence of her power.