Tag Archives: Marie Spartali Stillman

Marie Spartali Stillman – Brewing The Love Philtre

3 Nov

Marie Spartali Stillman, Pharmakeutria (Brewing The Love Philtre), 1870

Samhain may be over and we have entered the dark part of the year, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot find beauty, love and magic in the days of darkness; death of nature need not signify soul’s slumber. And do not assume that witches are on holiday now. Nay, they are as busy as ever, preparing the love potions, jotting down new magic spells, singing and selling their new books, flying on brooms, you know, the normal stuff. And here we have two witches-wanna be ladies who are brewing a love potion for some dashing haughty man out there who just refuses to return their affections. It is the dusk of the day; an owl is heard and November’s soft pinky fog is slowly descending. Tired forlorn sunflowers are blooming sweetly. The branches on the trees are bare, but there are some red leaves left, giving the tree trunk a soft autumnal embrace and shielding the bark from the cold winds of change.

Hidden behind the tree and the bushes, two ladies clad in long heavy purple and orange gowns are brewing the love potion in a little cauldron over some playful flames. Still and captured in the moment, the lady in orange had just opened the bottle of wine. The lady in purple seems to be asking “More wine? Are you sure we need more wine?” – “Why, yes, a few more drops”, the lady in orange replies. “Let me see what the book says.” An open book of magic spells lies open next to the lady in purple. The recipe says for a love potion one needs some sweet red wine, fresh basil leaves, red rose petals, cloves, apple seeds, three tears from the lovelorn maiden, a dried carnation, a dash of apple juice, some rosemary and thyme… So, why not, let us add more of this sweet red wine! Bur hurry, my dearest, for the night is approaching and soon the dusk’s pink veil will turn into the dark blue cloth of midnight and only our eyes, shining with yearning, and the flames of the fire will shine. The owl will tell us the time. The potion is brewing and the ladies are singing a soft song to pass by the time…

“Let the one who drinks this wine,
Shower me with love divine…” (*)

Marie Spartali Stillman as Memory (Mother of the Muses), by Julia Margaret Cameron, September 1868

Marie Spartali Stillman was one of the rare females in the Pre-Raphaelite circle who had established an art career for herself and who remained known as an artist in her own right, and not just a muse and a model, although she was a model as well. She was prolific and talented and, unlike Elizabeth Siddal whose art career was cut short by her laudanum overdose and we are left wondering what she could have accomplished, Marie left many beautiful vibrant and exuberant oil on canvases for posterity. This Grecian goddess in Victorian London quickly caught the eye of the writers and artists of the day, such as Swinburne, Whistler and Ford Maddox Brown, and she became Brown’s pupil in. In 1870, the year this painting was painted, Stillman exhibited in the Royal Academy in London for the first time. Becoming an artist or at least being in some way connected to the world of art almost seems like the most natural step to take for Marie because she grew up in an affluent family who praised the arts and was acquainted with people from the art world. Her father, Michael Spartali, was a wealthy merchant who moved from Greece to England in 1828, and her mother, Euphrosyne, known as Effie, was a daughter of a Greek merchant from Genoa. On one occasion, on a party of another Greek businessman, Marie met the poet and playwright Swinburne who was so overwhelmed with emotions upon meeting her, almost bewitched one might say, that he later said for Marie “She is so beautiful that I want to sit down and cry”.

Marie Spartali Stillman, by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1868

And of course, since this is the middle of the Victorian era, we are talking about the Pre-Raphaelite circles; if there is a beautiful young woman then Dante Gabriel Rossetti must also be involved in the story. And so he was. Very soon after Marie started taking drawing lessons from Ford Maddox Brown, Rossetti heard about this exotic Greek beauty and wrote to Brown on the 29th April 1867 saying: “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 but her head proved to be a hard one for portraying, as Dante had confessed later in a letter to Jane Morris. Still, the tall, melancholy, serious exotic Marie does seem to have the kind of beauty that Rossetti would appreciate; long necked, tall and regal, with a mass of long thick hair, pouting lips.

Marie Spartali Stillman – A Grecian Muse

14 Feb

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.

1868. Marie Spartali Stillman, Photo by Julia Cameron1868. Marie Spartali Stillman, Photo by Julia Margaret Cameron

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.

1871. Self-Portrait - Marie Spartali Stillman1871. Self-Portrait – Marie Spartali Stillman

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.

1884. Madonna Pietra degli Scrovigni by Marie Spartali Stillman1884. Madonna Pietra degli Scrovigni by Marie Spartali Stillman

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.