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Evelyn De Morgan painted several subjects using medieval themes and stylistic devices which had been made popular by the Pre-Raphaelites. These paintings included 'Queen Eleanor and the Fair Rosamund' and 'The Hour Glass'.
However, more correctly the painting should be categorised within De Morgan's series of allegoric paintings on the progress of the soul towards enlightenment. Despite the inclusion of a black cat, which hints by its very presence to the stereotypical depiction of diabolical sorceresses, the subject of the painting is presented as a learned scholar. She sits in a light-filled study surrounded by luxurious furnishings, and equipment. The leather-bound books on the bookcase to her side are a clue and include works by some of the greatest scientific and philosophical minds and were texts well known to the Spiritualist movement in their pursuit of enlightenment and spiritual enrichment.
Paracelsus was a Renaissance physician, botanist, alchemist, astrologer, and general occultist. Agrippa Von Nettesheim was a sixteenth-century physician and philosopher who wrote a treatise on alchemy and magic ('De occulta philosophia libri tres' – Three Books of Occult Philosophy). However, as one of the leading experts of his century on this spiritual and ancient wisdom, he wished to purge magic of the superstitious and dangerous rituals of medieval witches – instead of holding with theosophical principals that religion is a tool to help humanities evolution to greater perfection.
De Morgan’s adherence to alchemical colour symbolism as promoted by Paracelsus also sheds light on her intent. In this system, the four colours which mark the progressive stages towards spiritual enlightenment are black – the material state of guilt, sin, and death; white – the early stages or purification; red, then yellow – towards the gold of salvation. These stages parallel the Spiritualist ideas regarding the development of the spirit which involves a series of steps from the death of the profane, through purification and spiritual suffering toward the final goal of a harmonious union of opposites – represented in this case by the courting couple seen through the window. However, the ultimate union is the synthesis of bodily into spiritual nature – as represented by the wisdom seeking alchemist herself. Accordingly, we see in the painting the black of the cat – an alchemical creature of the night, connected to prime matter (and ironic comment on witches); the red lions on the tapestry – a symbol for Christianity, strength and wisdom and finally the dominant colour within the painting – the golden yellow of the alchemist’s robes.
Thus whilst the painting is stylistically in tune with some of De Morgan’s late Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist peers, Evelyn’s narrative is distinctly independent and allegorical. She uses her spiritualist vocabulary to subvert and renegotiates traditional roles and stereotypes of women, providing instead a strong, powerful, skilled intelligent protagonist, capable of reaching the enlightenment she herself sought.
Interpretation from Elise Lawton Smith’s 'Evelyn Pickering De Morgan and the Allegorical Body', Fairleigh Dickinson University, Madison, 2002, pp. 107–108.
oil on canvas
H 104.1 x W 52 cm