The Vision

In this painting we find a despairing Deianera, who has realized that she has unwittingly killed her husband Heracles. The painting shows an eclectic mixture of influences that is typical of later Pre-Raphaelite works. The composition with both Deianera pushed to the fore-ground of the picture, static and quite weightless, and behind her a smooth and other-worldly natural landscape reminds one of Burne-Jones, who was her close friend. The drapery and handling of the figure with the arms informing the emotional content of the pose is also very Burne-Jonesian but also shows De Morgan's study of Michelangelo. De Morgan also seems to have opted for Romantic and classical simplicity; the title of the painting is the only narrative cue it offers and we are merely shown a woman with a windy landscape behind her — a sort of pathetic fallacy that allows Deianera's clothing to be swept into the air, blocking out the skyline behind her head, so that we can focus on her despondent face.

The painting is approximately dated at 1878 which makes it one of her earliest works, conceived just after her tour of Italy, which began three years earlier. So far critical attention has been paid to the influence of Burne-Jones and of the artist's teacher John Rodham Spencer Stanhope, on Deianera. But if we look at de Morgan's later works this painting comes across as one of her most original in which each of the apparent influences beautifully compliments the despair of Deianera, which is the subject of this very balanced painting. The tone of her dress blends in with the landscape enough for the composition to appear unified but also contrasts enough for it to provide a focal point for the picture. Moreover, the depiction of the landscape strikes a balance between mythological fantasy and austere realism. Deianera's posture, especially her arms cupping her face, reminds one of Pre-Raphaelite use of body gestures, but in this case she is gathering up her grief and so it seems perfectly natural and fitting, rather than histrionic.

Questions

1. Think of Danto's red squares. How important is the title of the painting to our appreciation of the woman's grief and despair, given that it is the only piece of narrative information we are given? How much did her contemporaries rely on the narrative to tell the story?

2. How does this compare to de Morgan's later works (which you can see at illusionsgallery.com)? Does this suggest changing influences or a change of style?

3. How does the landscape compare to Deianera? Is it ambiguous?

4. Is it effective that the painting focuses largely on the clothing and the posture of the woman rather than her face?

5. If we compare Deianera to other Pre-Raphaelite woman to what extent is she less idealized, less objectified? A more female-orientated experience certainly appears here.

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Last modified 22 May 2007