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Evelyn Pickering De Morgan's Allegories of Imprisonment

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 October 2008

Elise Lawton Smith
Millsaps College


Evelyn pickering De Morgan (1855–1919) produced a large body of work, primarily paintings but also some sculptural projects, during a career spanning half a century. The great majority of her images include women as protagonists, often as allegorical personifications but with an unusually wide range of characteristics. She created women as members of a constructed and often constraining civilization, who exhibit at times a sort of drooping resignation, but she also represented women as powerful natural elements, actively in control of their destinies. Her art stands out as an attempt to blend metaphysical concerns about material embodiment and spiritual transcendence, grounded in the Platonic ideal, with concerns about social constraints and creative freedom that can be interpreted from a feminist perspective. By translating these fundamental issues about what it means to be human and, more specifically, female into an allegorical language that was unusual for a woman artist of the period (in fact, called “imprudently ambitious” by one critic1), she moved beyond the socially accepted “female iconography” of still life, landscape, and domestic narrative. Overlapping and sometimes contradictory attitudes toward the roles of women can be traced in her oeuvre, particularly in a body of images related to the theme of imprisonment.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1997

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