Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919) was a feminist and spiritual artist. Her spiritualism and her interest in the cosmos, in the competing forces of good and evil, influenced her allegorical and mythical artworks.
The Latin title of this 1895 painting translates as 'light in darkness', a phrase found in the Gospel of John, in which Christ represents the light. Here, the woman, clad in a shining gown adorned with flames, embodies light and hope. If you look closely, you can see she originally held a torch that De Morgan then painted out so as to add instead the laurel branch and ensure that her message of hope for peace was explicit. At the base of the painting, monsters – represented by crocodiles – prowl the water, denoting evil. But the halo of light and hope banishes these creatures, and sets the dark water aglow.
Lux in Tenebris – along with around 60 other paintings – was bequeathed to the gallery by Wilhelmina Stirling, Evelyn's younger sister. She established the De Morgan Foundation to safeguard Evelyn's paintings and ceramics by Evelyn's husband, William.
Both artists supported the suffrage movement, and both were signatories to the 1889 Declaration in Favour of Women's Suffrage. In 1913, William became the vice-president for the Men's League for Women's Suffrage. It seems possible the female figure of Lux also represents hope for the emancipation of women in a brighter future.
The model was the family's maid Jane Hales, who features in many of De Morgan's drawings and paintings.
Lux in Tenebris is featured in 'Pre-Raphaelite Artist of Hope', an exhibition at Towneley Hall in Burnley. Curated by young carers in partnership with Child Action North West, young Syrian Refugees, nurses from Royal Blackburn Hospital, Blind Veterans UK, and pupils from Burnley High School, the show will centre on De Morgan's notion of light coming from darkness and how this has enduring relevance for those most affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
'Pre-Raphaelite artist of hope: Evelyn de Morgan' is open at Towneley Hall, Burnley until 31st December 2021.
Sarah Hardy, Curator-Manager at the De Morgan Foundation