Evelyn De Morgan showed an early aptitude for drawing and, despite her parents disapproval, she entered the Slade in 1873 at the age of seventeen, where she was among the first generation of women to attend. De Morgan was the granddaughter of the artist John Spencer-Stanhope, and the niece of John Roddam Spencer-Stanhope, who greatly encouraged her career and introduced her to Italian Renaissance painting, which proved a lasting influence. In 1877, still aged only twenty-one, she was invited to contribute to the first exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery, and she continued to show there until 1887 when she transferred to its successor, the New Gallery, where the present lot was exhibited in 1888.
In 1887 she married the potter and novelist William De Morgan, who became a prominent figure in the decorative arts movement. The De Morgans settled at The Vale in Chelsea, where they lived until 1910, although they often wintered in Florence due to William's ill health. Financially successful in her own time, De Morgan often supported her husband’s less lucrative pottery business. Although De Morgan's studio was sold by Christie's after her death, her œuvre was carefully preserved by her sister, Mrs Wilhelmina Stirling, at Old Battersea House. After Mrs Stirling's death, the De Morgan Foundation was established, and a gallery housing the collection was opened on West Hill, Putney, now transferred to The Watts Gallery, Compton. It is rare, therefore, to find paintings by De Morgan offered at auction.
The legend of the wandering Jew derives from the fable of the Jew who mocked Christ on his way to Calvary, and was thus doomed to wander the earth until the Day of Judgement. The figure was a wise and immortal man, who crossed the earth in continual repentance. Here De Morgan depicts him as an elderly and hooded figure with a long white beard clad in a deep purple cloak. He stands at the head of a bier, where lies a young woman with auburn hair and ivory skin, draped in a sheet. Both figures have their arms crossed upon their chests and are situated within a sparse marble interior which lends the picture what Patricia Yates describes as a ‘poignant but restrained appeal’ (C. Gordon, op.cit., p. 62). A large window looks out upon a mountainous Italianate landscape and a white dove, poised for flight, perches on the windowsill.
De Morgan frequently employed literary and religious sources for her paintings, and here the titular quote derives from stanza XII from Byron’s Don Juan IV:
‘Whom the gods love die young’ was said of yore
And many deaths do they escape by this:
The death of friends and that which slays even more
The death of friendship, love, youth, all that is,
Except mere breath. And since the silent shore
Awaits at last even those whom longest miss
The old archer’s shafts, perhaps the early grave,
Which men weep over, may be meant to save’
Byron relates how through an early death much of the suffering associated with a long life can be spared. The old man doesn’t weep for the young woman, as he knows he must suffer through life without the hope of salvation.
We are grateful to Sarah Hardy at the De Morgan Foundation for her assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.