By the early twentieth century, narrative painting was in decline throughout Europe and North America. In Britain, its foremost exponents from the Pre-Raphaelites and their associates were growing old and dying. After Post-Impressionism was introduced to the public in 1910, this decline accelerated.
John Collier tried to revive ‘problem pictures’ after the Great War, with works such as Sacred and Profane Love (1919), which returned to women’s problems. On the left, sacred love is shown as a modestly if not dowdily dressed plain young woman, and on the right, profane love as a ‘flapper’ with bright, low-cut dress revealing her ankles, flourishing a feather in her left hand. The suitor is reflected in the mirror above, a smart young army officer.
That year brought the death of one of the last and most accomplished narrative painters of the turn of the century, Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919). Throughout her full career as an artist, she painted in a distinctive Pre-Raphaelite style, yet even today, her work is often omitted from consideration with other Pre-Raphaelite art.
Mary Evelyn Pickering was born into a wealthy upper-middle class family in London. Her father was friends with William Gladstone, who was to become Prime Minister, and she was introduced to art by her mother’s brother, Roddam Spencer-Stanhope, who was one of the first-generation Pre-Raphaelites. He introduced her to the Rossettis, Watts, Holman Hunt, and others.
She had trained first at the newly-formed South Kensington National Art Training School (now the Royal College of Art) in London, before gaining a place at the Slade, where she was taught by Sir Edward Poynter, a traditional narrative artist with a deep knowledge of classical stories. During the early twentieth century she painted a succession of narrative paintings.
Her Cadence of Autumn from 1905 shows five women in a frieze against a rustic background. From the left, one holds a basket of grapes and other fruit, two are putting marrows, apples, pears and other fruit into a large net bag, held between them. The fourth crouches down from a seated position, her hands grasping leaves, and the last is stood, letting the wind blow leaves out from each hand.
At the left, the trees are heavy with fruit and the fields either green or ripe corn. At the right, the trees are barren, and the landscape hilly and more wintry. Soft blue-white patches of mist are visible in the foreground on the right. The passing of the season, and the fruit harvest, progresses in time from the left to the right, in this almost unique composition.
In 1910-14, De Morgan painted the north wind in her Boreas and the Fallen Leaves. This wind blows sufficient to tear the last leaves of autumn from the trees, and cover a total of eight women who loop round from dancing to crouching on the ground.
As a pacifist, she responded to the outbreak of the Great War with S.O.S. (c 1914-16). A light-robed woman stands, her head thrown back and arms outstretched as if being crucified, on a rock in the sea. Her robes are iridescent, containing faint colours of the rainbow. Around her feet is a pantheon of vicious sea monsters, some winged, others snake-like, most toothed and predatory. Above her is a bright light, with coloured halos, against a sky studded with stars.
The well-known radio call to indicate distress, consisting of the Morse code letters S O S, wasn’t introduced until 1908, replacing the earlier Morse letters CQD (still used by the Titanic in 1912). The distress here is both personal and global, at the horrors of the war. The figure doesn’t just represent the force of good, but that of redemption, from among the sea of monstrous war.
The legendary story of Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund (1880-1919) was a popular subject for the Pre-Raphaelites, and quite different from what is now thought to be the historical basis. King Henry II (1133-1189, ruled 1154-1189) built a house for his mistress Rosamund Clifford at Woodstock, near Oxford. To protect her, it was inside a maze or labyrinth, and the house itself was called Labyrinthus. Henry’s wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, intended to kill Rosamund, so she traced her way through the maze using a thread, until she reached Rosamund. The Queen then gave her a choice of modes of execution: a dagger or the poison which she had brought with her. Rosamund drank the poison and died.
De Morgan’s powerful painting shows Eleanor at the left, her left hand still holding the red thread with which she had negotiated the maze. In her right hand is the vial of poison which she is about to administer to Rosamund, who is sat, looking dreamily into the distance, at the right. Malevolent bats and faces are shown around Eleanor’s head and shoulders, to indicate her evil intent. Lower down they transform into flying serpents, which are chasing tiny putti adorning the floor. White doves and another putto are flying away to the right, and there are occasional miniature stars around Eleanor. A stained glass window behind shows two lovers about to kiss under a fruit tree.
In reality, Eleanor abandoned Henry in the Great Revolt of 1173-4, for which he imprisoned her in Winchester until his death in 1189. Rosamund entered a nunnery at Godstow Abbey in 1174 or later, where she died in 1176.
After Evelyn De Morgan’s death in 1919, there was one final survivor of the Pre-Raphaelite movement who continued to paint narratives until her eyesight and health failed during the 1920s, Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1872–1945), who had only been ten years old when Dante Gabriel Rossetti died.
She was a precocious artist, and started her studies at the Crystal Palace School of Art, before entering the Royal Academy Schools in 1897. Her major influence was John Byam Liston Shaw, who in turn was influenced by John Everett Millais and J W Waterhouse. Her work received rare praise from George Frederick Watts, then a veteran of Victorian art.
Love and his Counterfeits (1904) is a flamboyant watercolour exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1905, accompanied by a text written by the artist explaining the allegorical scenario as that of a girl’s soul (at the left) awakening to receive love. She doesn’t recognise him at first, seeing instead Fear in black armour, and Romance as a boy on a bubble with a miniature castle of dreams. He leads Ambition, who rides on Pegasus, following which is Position. Then comes Pity, with a cup of tears with three handles. Later comes Flattery with a mirror, and Gratitude, and finally True Love, at the far right.
Also exhibited in 1905 was her oil painting The Little Foot Page (1905), showing a scene from the Scottish ballad of Burd Helen, in which the heroine, an abandoned and pregnant lover, cuts her hair and disguises herself and her pregnancy, to pursue her lover.
The Uninvited Guest (1906) addresses the popular theme of the marriage of convenience, contracted for wealth and status rather than for love. A wedding party is processing from the service, with the bride and groom to the left of centre. Those opulent figures representing rank and wealth pass by the neglected nude figure of Cupid, symbolising true love.
If One Could Have That Little Head of Hers (1910) is a watercolour with a curious title referring to Robert Browning’s poem A Face, which starts:
If one could have that little head of hers
Painted upon a background of pale gold,
Such as the Tuscan’s early art prefers!
This appears to be a soliloquy on an early Renaissance painting of a beautiful woman.
Her finest paintings must be two of the most significant works about art history from the twentieth century, in which she painstakingly recreated imaginary scenes from the Renaissance, both well before the arrival of Raphael.
In 1920, she painted The Forerunner, showing Leonardo da Vinci trying to convince the Milanese court of his idea for flying machines. The notable figures included here are (from the left) Savonarola (taken from Fra Bartolomeo’s portrait), Beatrice d’Este (Duchess of Milan), Cecilia Gallerani, Elisabetta Gonzaga, Leonardo da Vinci, and Ludovico Sforza (Duke of Milan, and Leonardo’s patron).
She sold The Forerunner to Lord Leverhulme, and in 1922 was commissioned to paint Botticelli’s Studio for Montague Rendell.
The painting’s title reveals its key figures: Botticelli’s Studio: The first visit of Simonetta presented by Giulio and Lorenzo de Medici (1922). Sandro Botticelli stands at the left, in front of an exquisite tondo which he is working on. Bowing to him at the centre is Giuliano de’ Medici, who is accompanied by Simonetta Vespucci, wearing the green dress. Behind her is Lorenzo de’ Medici, also known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, and behind him are Giovanna Tornabuoni and her attendants. The view through the window is of the Palazzo Vecchio in the centre of Florence.
These figures weren’t painted from models or imagination, but each is based on contemporary sources. Giovanna Tornabuoni comes from a detail of Domenico Ghirlandaio’s painting The Visitation (c 1488) in the Tornabuoni Chapel of the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449-1492) appears in Girolamo Macchietti’s undated portrait of Lorenzo the Magnificent.
It was Sandro Botticelli who painted the reference Portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici in about 1475. The painting shown in progress is Botticelli’s Madonna of the Magnificat, believed to have been completed in 1483. The figures might have been able to gather together in this way in about 1475, before the deaths of Simonetta and Giuliano de’ Medici, but that is well before Botticelli might have painted Madonna of the Magnificat, and when Giovanna Tornabuoni was still a child.
The next major British narrative painter was probably the late Dame Paula Rego, who came to the UK from Portugal in 1951 and died last June.
Evelyn De Morgan in Wikipedia.
De Morgan Foundation and Collection.
Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale’s Golden Book of Famous Women, at archive.org (downloadable in various formats).
Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale in Wikipedia.
John Howe’s The Stuff of Dreams, a detailed study of her career and work. Strongly recommended.