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 St 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.
The painting will be part of Pre-Raphaelite Artist of Hope, an exhibition due to open at Towneley Hall in Burnley in the spring. 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.
With kind assistance from Hannah Crichton, De Morgan Foundation volunteer.
• This series is brought to you in collaboration with Art UK, which brings the nation’s art together on one digital platform and tells the stories behind the art. The website shows works by 50,000 artists from over 3,000 venues including museums, universities and hospitals as well as thousands of public sculptures. Discover the art you own here.