Emma Merkling - The Courtauld Institute of Art

Emma Merkling

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Emma Merkling

PhD student

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10 Jun

Dissertation: ‘Matter and Spirit: Physics, Mathematics, and Philosophy of Science in Evelyn De Morgan’s Art and Automatic Writings, 1883–1919’

Supervised by Caroline Arscott and Jo Applin

I specialise in interdisciplinary research on the intersections between late nineteenth-century British art and science. I am particularly interested in queer and women artists; Aestheticism; Victorian physics, mathematics, and psychology; and heterodox belief systems such as spiritualism and theosophy.

My PhD research focuses on the paintings of English artist Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919). I examine her art and automatic writings (communications with spirit beings) in relation to Victorian physics, metaphysics, mathematics, and philosophy of science. I argue that De Morgan’s works — which have received insufficient scholarly attention to date — frequently expressed their spiritualist subject matter by exploiting the imagery and theoretical structures of contemporary science, which both helped her visualise invisible phenomena and imbued her concerns with scientific authority. De Morgan’s automatic writings reveal that she found spiritual clarity through art-making, clarity she pursued by constructing visual allegories of energy transfer and ethereal transmission, exploiting the symbolic potential of mathematical logic, and envisaging atomic motion as a portal to other dimensions. I mobilise a range of theoretical frameworks, from Sigmund Freud on Eros and Thanatos to Gilles Deleuze on figuration, to provide new insights into persistent elements within De Morgan’s oeuvre, such as her fascination with the borderlands of life and death and with the dynamics of (physical) containment and (psychical) release.

My research contributes to a growing body of scholarship demonstrating the importance of treating science and the arts as mutually influencing aspects of one culture, rather than wholly distinct areas of study. It challenges ahistorical assumptions about the supposed polarity, in Victorian and Edwardian Britain, of science and art; science and religion; fact and feeling; and associated modalities. My analysis of De Morgan’s art in context reveals her fluid navigation of these binaries, and her willingness to activate a broad range of epistemological and representational frameworks to explore her concerns. This approach offers new insights into her art — reassessed here as serious and relevant to today’s issues — and into the intersections between the arts and sciences in fin-de-siècle Britain generally. More broadly, my approach moves beyond conventional disciplinary boundaries to mobilise a range of materials that generate novel understandings of Victorian art and culture.


  • PhD History of Art, The Courtauld Institute of Art (2017 – present)
  • MA History of Art, The Courtauld Institute of Art (2017)
  • BA Art History and Archaeology, Columbia College, Columbia University (2015)

Awards, Grants, and Fellowships

  • Research Continuity Fellowship for project ‘Physics, Metaphysics, and Mathematics in Evelyn De Morgan’s Art, 1883–1919’, Paul Mellon Centre (2020)
  • Lord Jacob Rothschild Scholarship, The Courtauld Institute of Art (2018–2020)
  • Oppenheimer Memorial Trust Grant for International Study (2017–2020)
  • Research Support Grant for project ‘Evelyn De Morgan in Florence, 1895–1914,’ Paul Mellon Centre (2019)
  • Visiting Research Fellow, Yale Center for British Art (2018)
  • Friends of The Courtauld Institute of Art Scholarship, The Courtauld Institute of Art (2017–2018)
  • Paule Vézelay Award for Best Dissertation in Modern and Contemporary Art, The Courtauld Institute of Art (2017)
  • Edmond J. Safra Scholarship, The Courtauld Institute of Art (2016–2018)
  • Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society, Columbia University (2015)

Professional Activities

Research Interests

  • History of 19th-century science (physics, mathematics, and psychophysiology)
  • Art and science
  • Late Victorian art
  • Fin-de-siècle art in Europe
  • Spiritualism and Theosophy
  • Phenomenology
  • Queer and women artists
  • Interdisciplinarity


  • 2019 – 2020: Teaching Assistant, Core Methodologies (MA), The Courtauld Institute of Art
  • 2019 – 2020: Guest Lecturer, Victorian Science and Aesthetic Movement Art (MA), The Courtauld Institute of Art
  • 2017 – 2018: Guest Lecturer, Victorian Science and Aesthetic Movement Art (MA), The Courtauld Institute of Art


Conference Papers

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