I have to admit that one of my favourite Rossetti pictures doesn't involve Fanny Cornforth. Please don't tell her. In fact, it doesn't even involve Alexa Wilding. It is this one...
|A Vision of Fiammetta (1878) D G Rossetti|
It's just so very orange-y. Okay, I admit that's not a very intellectual reason for loving something, so I'll cover by saying that the apple blossoms are exquisite and their promise of renewal is countered by the fact that Fiammetta is dead and this is a final vision of her. It is temptation and denial, it is body and spirit, and it is not Alexa Wilding, no matter how much it looks like her. It's a lovely woman called Marie Spartali Stillman.
Starting out when Marie was merely Spartali, she was a member of the powerful Greek community in London, with people such as Maria Zambaco and Constantine Ionides. She was the daughter of Michael Spartali, and import-export merchant, who had been born in Greece, and Marie was born in Middlesex in 1843. She had an equally beautiful sister, Christina, who modeled for Whistler in this rather lovely image...
|La Princess (1865) J A M Whistler|
The family had a house in London, on Clapham Common, called The Shrubbery, with views over Chelsea, and they summered on the Isle of Wight where Daddy Spartali grew grapes. How marvellous.
From 1864-70 she trained under Ford Madox Brown, developing into an artist of obvious Pre-Raphaelite leanings...
|The Lady Prays - Desire (1867)|
It was while she was learning her craft that Brown became infatuated by her. When I first read that, I thought I had read wrong because that is exactly what happened with Maria Zambaco and Ned Burne-Jones, but apparently it was the rules. You teach a nice Greek girl, you have to become obsessed by her beauty.
Mind you, her pictures are rather lovely. Her sole female figures in wistful poses are typical of the period, but are reminiscent of Rossetti, with the watercolour romance of his earlier work. Mind you, where Rossetti's women often just seem to exist to be looked at, there is a more dynamic aesthetic behind some of Marie Spartali's work. Take the emotional Antigone...
The picture conjures a splendidly bleak feeling, quite isolated and desperate. When Rossetti heard she was training with Brown, he sent word to his old friend, insisting "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." Gosh, Rossetti, you smoothy. I think Old Brown actually fancied having a 'shy' at her, but Rossetti used her as one of his regular models from the late 1860s onwards...
|The Bower Meadow D G Rossetti|
She was used as a bookend for Alexa in not only The Bower Meadow but also the reimagining of Dante's Dream, where she holds the other end of the canopy over the dead Beatrice.
|Dante's Dream at the Time of the Death of Beatrice (1871) D G Rossetti|
|Chalk Sketch of Marie Spartali (1870) D G Rossetti|
Right, she's on the right. I think. Ho hum, anyway, also of note in the picture is a certain Mr William Stillman, playing the part of Dante. It is uncertain whether Miss Spartali and Mr Stillman had met before this picture, but Marie fell in love with William, an American widower. Her family were against it, but the couple married in 1871.
|William Stillman D G Rossetti|
Sensible girl that she was, she modelled for other people too, posing for Burne-Jones (The Mill and possibly The Beguiling of Merlin) and countless images by Julia Margaret Cameron...
|Marie Spartali (1868) Julia Margaret Cameron|
William's job as a foreign correspondent saw the family move to Italy and travel in America, where she painted and exhibited on the east coast. Despite the unsettled nature of her family life, she was a regular contributor to The Grosvenor Gallery and its successor The New Gallery, but although her work was popular, it didn't seem to sell in the shows.
|Love Sonnets (1894)|
When she died, she left a note with her Will that it seemed odd to leave a Will when she had nothing of great interest to leave. Today, however her works are numbered in some of the great Pre-Raphaelite collections in the world and her body of work is valued at many millions of pounds. In her obituary in The Times, in 1927, it was written 'With the great triad of those early and now remote days, Mrs Rossetti, Lady Burne-Jones, and Mrs Morris, she was almost a fourth, and of the two latter was a lifelong friend.' She was known as a talent and a beauty, in fact Swinburne described her thus: 'She is so beautiful that I want to sit down and cry!' which I think counts as a fairly good compliment. People often want to cry after meeting me, but I think that might be different...
Her work was included in the 1998 Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists exhibition in Manchester, and I have read her described as the best of the female Pre-Raphaelite painters. It does seem that she was described as such, a true Pre-Raphaelite, from the first, possibly because of her connection to the founders of the brotherhood and the circle as a whole.
|St George (1892)|
She continued to paint in the style, producing beautiful works through the turn of the century and beyond, through motherhood, bereavement and endless travel finally settling in London with one of her step-daughters. Her friendship with Georgie Burne-Jones and Jane Morris shows how she was regarded by the circle, and Samuel Bancroft Jnr wrote to Fanny Cornforth that he had met Marie Stillman (who Fanny claimed to know).
|Kelmscott Manor (1905)|
Stillman's daughter from his first marriage, Lisa, became an artist, and Marie's own daughter Euphrosyne (Effie) became an artist and sculptress too...
|Portrait of Effie (1876)|
|Arnold Toynbee (1893) Euphrosyne Stillman|
Her son Michael was an architect and settled in America, where it seems her art was taken slightly more seriously as retrospectives were held in 1908 and 1982. Maybe one could be held in this country soon in light of the rather marvellous exhibition of Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale that is exciting us this year. In any case, it's rather splendid to see her work, which I feel gives a glimpse of what Elizabeth Siddal's work may have been had she lived. Marie is a Pre-Raphaelite heroine and a powerhouse of art and I look forward to seeing her profile raised when Pre-Raphaelitism becomes all the rage this Autumn...