A long, distressing chain of events has led Deianira, daughter of the King of Calydon, to the moment at which Evelyn De Morgan depicts her in her watercolor Deianira (c. 1878): According to Greek mythology, Heracles had fought a bull to marry her; he had shot her attempted seducer and his enemy, the centaur Nessus, who gave Deianira his blood before he died and with it false information; Heracles later proved unfaithful to Deianira who followed Nessus' treacherous advice and sent the blood to her husband, causing his death by incineration. De Morgan portrays Deianira in her grief after her husband's death, according to Christopher Newall (Victorian Web), who writes that the body of water behind her represents the River Evenus, the site of Nessus' attempted rape. However, De Morgan provides no obvious signs that confirm this water as the River Evenus; nor does she offer other details to help place Deianira, either geographically or temporally, within the narrative of her life. No traces of other characters from the story or of any buildings suggesting her home kingdom appear in the painting. Instead, Deianira stands completely surrounded by nature.
De Morgan's portrayal of nature contains certain traditional elements of landscape painting: a tripartite structure, moving from a brown and green foreground and middleground into a pale blue background suggesting distance, diagonal lines drawing the eye of the viewer into the landscape, and a variety of natural forms including different types of trees, water and mountains. Despite the seeming normality of the landscape, the comparatively low horizon and the incredible height of the figure -- whose waist sits well-above the horizon -- give the effect of Deianira dwarfing her surroundings. John Rodham Spencer Stanhope, De Morgan's uncle and teacher, creates a similar effect with a low horizon in Night (c. 1878). However, his subject of a personified Night spreading her arms across the sky to bring darkness to the world, in addition to the slight indication that the figure of Night is flying, more clearly suggests his motivation for making Night appear so large against the landscape than does De Morgan's subject.
The contrast between Deianira and the landscape is striking. Whereas the natural scene behind her appears serene, with the trees just slightly tilting in the breeze, Deianira's clothes wrap tightly around her body as though blown strongly against her, with some of her dress billowing dramatically over her head. The peace and stillness of the landscapes opposes Deianira's devastated movements as she walks and raises her arms. Furthermore, the oranges and pinks of the fabric she wears contrast vividly in the upper portion of the painting with the pale, cool tones of the sky.
In addition to the influence Night may have had on the scale in Deianira, Stanhope's positioning of the expanse of cloth over and behind his figure's head may have inspired De Morgan to portray Deianira similarly draped. Since Night and Deianira were painted around the same time without one definitively completed before the other, it is possible that some influence might not only have spread from teacher to pupil, but in the other direction as well. The paintings differ, however, in that Stanhope's figure actively pulls her drapery over her unlike Deianira, who seems passive in relation to the forceful, windblown cloth. The poses of the two figures also differ: Night opens her body outward toward the viewer and the world in order to spread darkness; Deianira's shoulders hunch forward and her arms encircle her face, pulling her body inward in the typical pose of Victorian female grief.
Do the lack of narrative details included in the painting suggest that a more important subject of the painting is the idea of a despairing woman, plagued by her own guilt and grief, rather than Deianira in particular? If so, then why did De Morgan give the painting a title that binds it to this particular story? And if one dismisses the idea of De Morgan depicting more generalized grief, then what function is this barrenness of detail serving by obscuring the story?
Deianira's pose powerfully expresses her desperation, yet her face appears remarkably placid. Does this apparent contradiction complicate De Morgan's portrayal of Deianira, or is it simply a manifestation of Burne-Jonesian idealizing?
De Morgan is considered a follower of Burne-Jones. Yet her depiction of nature departs from his other-worldly and often rock-filled landscapes in such paintings as The Morning of the Resurrection (1882), The Mirror of Venus (1898) and most of the paintings in the Perseus Cycle as well as from his strongly decorative, repetitive, patterned depictions of nature such as in The Beguiling of Merlin (1874) and in the final Perseus painting, The Baleful Head (1887). What other elements of Burne-Jones style does De Morgan reject? Incorporate?
Newall, Christopher. A Celebration of British and European Painting of the 19th and 20th Centuries. London: Peter Nahum, 1997. Pp. 26-27.
Last modified 27 June 2020