Producing over one hundred paintings as well as drawings and sculpture throughout her nearly fifty year career, de Morgan distinguished herself from her contemporaries through her focus on spiritualism and the female body, particularly the boundaries placed upon it by Victorian society. The single nude female figure set against a landscape with a low horizon was a subject she revisited regularly, often drawing from well-known mythological and literary narratives that featured psychologically complex and strong characters. The present work is no exception.
In this compelling painting, de Morgan interprets the story of the water nymph Clytie, the daughter of the King of Babylon. As told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, Clytie falls in love with the sun god, Apollo, and when he abandons her for another, she strips herself and sits naked on the rocks in the sun, nourished only by her tears. Each day from dawn to dusk, she stares at the chariot of the sun, driven by her erstwhile lover, as he journeys through the sky. On the ninth day, she is transformed into a sunflower (a popular emblem of the Aesthetic movement), which turns its head to look longingly at the sun.
The theme of a woman transforming into a plant fascinated Victorian Artists of the nineteenth century. For example, Burne-Jones illustrated the story of Phyllis, who in anguish at her beloved Demaphoön’s disappearance kills herself but is turned into an almond tree out of pity by the gods, in his Tree of Forgiveness (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool, fig. 1), which was exhibited in 1882 at the Grosvenor Gallery. When approaching the story of Clytie, many artists of the period portrayed the nymph firmly facing the sky, a reference to Apollo’s power over the devoted nymph and of her inability to determine her own actions. In Frederic Lord Leighton’s version of Clytie (1896, Leighton House Museum, fig. 2), which was his last painting and left unfinished in his studio, the nymph is portrayed kneeling with head flung back and arms outstretched to the sky. In her rendition, however, de Morgan portrays Clytie mid-transformation as the sunflowers at her feet wrap around the legs of her lithe body. Turning peacefully downwards with eyes closed, she gently places her hands on the crown of her head to shield herself from Apollo’s powerful rays. No longer is she defined solely by the actions of her lover.
De Morgan completed a pastel study of the present work in 1885, and Reverend George Tugwell purchased the arresting composition directly from the artist in 1907. On October 14, 1907, he wrote, “Your Clytie is hung in our morning room between the sliding door and the china cabinet, the best light we can find for it at present. It looks remarkably well and is quite the light of the room and I am delighted with it... when I see you again I may…discourse on the possible removal of two leaves of the sunflower.” The next day, the artist politely replied, “I am so glad you like Clytie and it is such a pleasure to me that she should have found a home in your beautiful Lee valley. With regard to what you say about the leaves, I fear any alteration would be impossible, as the picture was painted in a peculiar method to obtain the brilliancy of the colour and varnished, so that any attempt to change now would damage the quality of the painting” (Catherine Gordon, Evelyn de Morgan: Oil Paintings, London, 1996, p. 18).
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