Emma Merkling

Emma Merkling

Wallace Fellow
Alchemy and the Anglo-Florentines: Neoplatonism, Occultism, and Evelyn De Morgan’s Renaissance
2023-2024 (January - June)
Emma Merkling


Emma Merkling (PhD, The Courtauld Institute of Art, 2021) is an art historian specialising in the entanglements between late-nineteenth century British art, science, and heterodox spiritual belief. She is currently preparing a book project on the spiritualist art and scientific influences of Evelyn De Morgan, and completing a network-mapping project on the symbolist-spiritualist milieux of Annie Swynnerton in Rome (c. 1880–1920). Emma has held fellowships at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art (2023), the Terra Foundation (2022), University of Stirling and the Science Museum (2021–22), and the Yale Center for British Art (2018). Recent publications include an article on De Morgan in Art History and the co-edited book The Victorian Idyll in Art and Literature (Routledge), including a chapter on Julia Margaret Cameron’s photography, enchantment, and plant erotics.

Project Summary

This project explores British artist Evelyn De Morgan’s engagement with the Renaissance in a series of paintings produced in Florence and London from 1889 to 1910. As the alchemical revival in Britain and Italy gained currency and new esoteric religions and sciences flourished, De Morgan began painting her first explicitly occultic subjects. These paintings, their style synthesised from late fifteenth-century masters, depict alchemical processes and enchantments and directly reference Neoplatonic scientists of the early Renaissance. This project theorises that De Morgan’s spiritualist beliefs and practices — including communication with Fra Angelico’s spirit — were key to her alchemical art, and indicate a wider and earlier Victorian engagement with Renaissance esotericism than yet proposed. Archival research and network study will embed her reception of Renaissance art and culture in her specific milieux, helping clarify the relationship between her ‘neo-Renaissant’ art and Neoplatonic spiritualism, wider nineteenth-century alchemical revivals, and Victorian receptions of Renaissance esotericism. In addition to providing important new insights into late-Victorian art, this project recovers the role of Anglo-Florentine networks in the reception and circulation of Renaissance thinking in relation to nineteenth-century occultism on the one hand, and art and Neoplatonism on the other. It forms part of a book project on De Morgan’s art in its intellectual and scientific contexts.