Marie Spartali Stillman was a British Pre-Raphaelite painter of Grecian descent, but she was also a muse and a model to other Pre-Raphaelite painters, enchanting them with her elegant stature and classical features, resembling a Grecian or a Roman goddess.
Marie studied painting for several years from 1864, as a pupil of Ford Madox Brown, an English painter whose painting style resembles the Pre-Raphaelite version of Hogarth’s work. She studied alongside other pupils Georgiana Burne-Jones and Brown’s daughter Lucy Madox Brown, both of whom would grow up to be a painters in their own right.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti soon found out that Marie had become Brown’s pupil and he wasted no time writing to him, on the 29th April: ‘I just hear Miss Spartali is to be your pupil. I hear too that she is one and the same with a marvellous beauty of whom I have heard much talk. So box her up and don’t let fellows see her, as I mean to have first shy at her in the way of sitting.‘ Marie indeed sat for Rossetti very soon, in 1867. Her head proved to be a hard one for portraying, as Dante had wrote to Jane Morris.
Marie possessed the kind of beauty which was perfect for modelling, and in Dante’s eyes she resembled a goddess with her tall figure, elegant gestures, long hair and a gaze that was straightforward and dreamy at the same time. She embodied the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of beauty, as did Jane Morris before.
That Marie became a painter, a muse and a model to artists, choosing a bohemian life in a way, is not a coincidence for she came from a cultural and refined background; art was valued in Spartali’s household. Her father, Michael, was a wealthy merchant, principal of the firm Spartali & Co, who moved to London in 1828. Her mother, Euphrosyne, known as Effie, was a daughter of a Greek merchant from Genoa. Her heritage, along with later life abroad, is woven in her works, all of which burst with sensuality and richness in colour.
Spartali family lived in a Georgian country house, known as ‘The Shrubbery‘ with a huge garden and views over the Thames and Chelsea. Marie’s father was fond of lavish garden parties so he invited young artists and writers of the day at the gatherings in his blossomed garden. Growing up in artistic environment meant that Marie and her younger sister Christine had many opportunities to meet famous artists of the day. One time, in the house of a Greek business man A.C. Iodines in south London, they met Whistler, an American-born but British-based artist, and Swinburne, an English poet and playwright. Swinburne was overwhelmed with emotions upon meeting Marie, that he said of her ‘She is so beautiful that I want to sit down and cry.‘
Upon marrying American journalist and painter William J. Stillman, against the wishes of her parents, she divided a lot of time between London and Florence from 1878 to 1883, and then Rome from 1889 to 1896, as William was a foreign correspondent for The Times. Her time spent in Italy proved to be fruitful for her painting style in a way that she entirely absorbed the aesthetics of Italian Renaissance. Her fascination with Italian landscapes and females figures with their unhidden sensuality, vividness and liveliness, along with studious depiction of nature, place Marie’s paintings side by side with works of great Pre-Raphalite painters such as Rossetti, Hunt, and Millais.
Perhaps my favourite painting by Marie is ‘Madonna Pietra degli Scrovigni‘ shown above. It dazzled me with its charming and detailed depiction of nature, and the visual equalization of nature with the woman who is actually a character from Dante’s poetry. She is described as a lady in green, very heartless, but very pretty, her moss green robe merged with the nature in the background. She’s holding a crystal ball reflecting the figures of Love and Dante. The depth of the landscape is magnificent, one could feel that is goes on and on, never ending, through the trees, bushes, all the way up to the hills.
Influence of Rossetti’s later period is evident in Marie’s paintings, ‘Madonna Pietra degli Scrovigni‘ being no exception. In later phase of his work Rossetti was influenced by the Italian High Renaissance, especially the painters such as Titian and Veronese, representatives of Venetian school. Marie continued Rossetti’s tradition with this painting for she painted the lady half-length in a Renaissance manner, but still, it remains a completely personal painting reflecting the beauty of the Italian landscapes Marie had observed, admired and cherished.