Born into a landowning family, from an early age Evelyn De Morgan, née Pickering, demonstrated a precocious artistic talent and a passionate desire to pursue a career as a an artist, writing in her diary on her seventeenth birthday ‘Art is eternal, life is short… I have not a moment to lose’ (Evelyn De Morgan’s Diary, 30 August 1872, De Morgan Foundation Archive). Her maternal uncle, the artist John Roddam Spencer-Stanhope (see lots 7 and 26), encouraged her talents and accompanied her on her first formative journeys to Italy where she discovered the Renaissance masters, in particular Botticelli. Botticelli’s influence was to prove long lasting, and is seen most notably in Flora (fig. 2, 1894, De Morgan Foundation), Evelyn’s response to Primavera (fig.1, c. 1480, The Uffizi, Florence), as well as in the present lot.
Overcoming initial parental opposition, Evelyn enrolled at the newly formed Slade School in 1873, one of the first women to do so. The Slade revolutionised women’s artistic education by allowing female students to study the nude from life alongside their male counterparts. Whilst at the Slade she began to submit work under her middle name Evelyn, rather than her Christian name Mary, as its gender ambiguity offered a chance for her work to be judged on its own merit rather than being marked down because she was a female artist. One of her tutors, Edward Poynter (see lot 19), was a leading artist of the Aesthetic movement, which emphasised the importance of beauty over narrative, characterised by Baudelaire's phrase 'art for art’s sake'. De Morgan’s adherence to the Aesthetic style in her early career helped ensure commercial success and in 1877, still aged only twenty-one, she was invited to contribute to the first exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery.
In 1884 she met the ceramicist William De Morgan, who became a prominent figure in the Arts & Crafts movement. The De Morgans married in 1887 and settled at The Vale in Chelsea, where they lived until 1910. Financially successful in her own time, De Morgan often supported her husband’s less lucrative pottery business.
Already deeply religious, her marriage encouraged De Morgan’s interest in Spiritualism, a movement that thrived as an antidote to the religious uncertainty caused by Darwin’s theory of evolution. It extended evolutionary theory into the afterlife through attempts to prove that the soul survives death. The development of these intellectual and religious ideas can be seen in many of her paintings, such as the present work, which buries her deep spiritualism under a beautiful aesthetic.
Gloria in Excelsis is an abbreviation of Gloria in Excelsis Deo, or Glory to God in the highest, the anthem known as the hymn of the angels, so called as these were the first words the angels sang when announcing the birth of Christ to the shepherds (Luke 2: 14). On the surface the title refers to the two angels singing the Gloria. The one on the right holds a scroll emblazoned with the words of the hymn, whilst the left hand angel plucks at a harp. However, it also embodies the deeper message that Christ’s birth will unite angels and men, separated by original sin, and that man may hope to join the heavenly host after death. This emphasis on the prospect of life after death greatly appealed to De Morgan’s spiritualist sensibilities and the painting is full of symbolism.
The two angels are sumptuously dressed in robes of white, red and gold, with elaborate wings made up of phoenix and peacock feathers, symbols of immortality and renewal. Above them in the golden cloud are the six winged seraphim, the highest order of angels, which these earth-bound angels hope to join. The harp represents the unity of heaven and earth, or of an inner spirituality and outer physicality. In a black and gold compositional study for the painting (fig. 3, 1893, De Morgan Foundation) the ground beneath the angels’ feet is rocky and desolate. However, in the final picture the ground is strewn with spring flowers, emphasising a message of hope and renewal.
Gloria in Excelsis was purchased by the Liverpool shipbuilder William Imrie, owner of the White Star Line, the company that would later build the Titanic. Imrie was one of De Morgan’s most important patrons, buying or commissioning eight paintings from her, including Flora and Eos (1895, Columbia Museum of Art.) The similarity in the aesthetic of these works, often featuring the same female model, suggests that Imrie may have had some influence on De Morgan’s choice of composition. Alongside De Morgan’s works, Imrie’s collection at Holmstead, Mossley Hill (fig. 4), contained important pieces by Burne-Jones, such as The Tree of Forgiveness, (1882, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight), by Rossetti, Spencer-Stanhope and by John Melhuish Strudwick. After his death the collection was sold in these Rooms by his adoptive daughter Amy and works from his collection now adorn the walls of museums and galleries around the world.
We are grateful to Sarah Hardy, curator of The De Morgan Foundation, for her assistance in cataloguing this work.