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Marie Spartali Stillman (10 March 1844 – 6 March 1927)

“She is a noble girl, in beauty, in sweetness and in artistic gifts, and the sky would seem very warm … and the road in front bright and clear … to him who starts on his life’s journey foot to foot and hand in hand with her”

Dante Gabriel Rossetti describing Marie Spartali Stillman in a letter to Charles Eliot Norton, 11 April 1870

 

Marie_Spartali_Stillman_Self-Portrait_1871

Marie Spartali Stillman, Self-Portrait, 1871, Charcoal and white chalk on paper, Delaware Art Museum
(image source: www.wikimedia.org)

 

In accounts of the ‘Pre-Raphaelite Circle’, we are often told a tale of a male-dominated movement within the arts scene of Victorian Britain, battling the claustrophobic values set by the Academy. It is only in recent revisionist scholarship and with the rise of a newfound interest in the art of the Victorians, that the women associated with these ‘revolutionary’ male artists have been established to be equally as significant and more than suitably talented to be credited as Pre-Raphaelite artists, alongside their male counterparts. Painting during a time when women were more frequently viewed as model or muse rather than as artist, Marie Spartali Stillman was a painter who managed to make her mark on the art world during her own lifetime. With a lengthy sixty year career as proof, she is now regarded as, arguably, the greatest female artist of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

 

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Marie Spartali Stillman, Sir Tristram and La Belle Isolde, 1873. Watercolour and gouche on paper, Private Collection
(image source: www.delapublic.org)

 

Born to Michael and Euphrosyne (Effie) in 1844, Marie had a wealthy upbringing due to her father’s high standing in London’s Greek community. She and her family would often split their time between Clapham Common, London and a summer house on the Isle of Wight. It was due to her father’s connections that Marie was introduced to London’s bright, exciting communities of artists and intellects. Circulating among the affluent and free-thinkers of the capital led to a young Marie having the opportunity to train under Ford Madox Brown (Pre-Raphelite associate and tutor to Dante Gabriel Rossetti) from the years 1864-1870, and it was here that she came to the attention of the other members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle. Labelled a ‘stunner’ she was a popular choice of model, modelling for works by Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Julia Margaret Cameron.

 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, A Vision of Fiammetta, 1878. Oil on canvas, in the Collection of Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber. Model: Marie Spartali Stillman
(image source: www.wikimedia.org)

 

Julia Margaret Cameron, Marie Stillman (née) Stillman, 1868. Albumen cabinet card, National Portrait Gallery, London
(image source: www.npg.org)

Although hoping to wed the then widowed Rossetti, Marie instead went on to marry American journalist and painter William J. Stillman in 1871, against the wishes of her parents. Although it is unclear how they first met, both have been credited as models for Rossetti’s ‘Dante’ images. This marital union to would however prove to be far more prosperous than the fantasied marriage to Rossetti. Marie’s relationship with Stillman gave her the opportunity to meet and make connections with a new circle of artists due to his job as a foreign correspondent, travelling to America and Rome, while the couple also divided their time between London and Florence. These travels enabled Marie’s works to retain their Pre-Raphaelite style and technique in combination with elements and inspiration from the various places she visited, as proven by her artistic output during, and following her time spent in Florence (1878-1883), which was to be her most developmental period as an artist.

 

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Marie Spartali Stillman, The Enchanted Garden of Messer Ansaldo, 1889, watercolour, Private Collection
(image source: www.wikimedia.org)

 

Though little of her work was sold, it was during this period that Marie began to steadily exhibit to various galleries in the many cities she found herself. She exhibited at the Dudley Gallery; became a regular contributor to the Grosvenor Gallery and its successor the New Gallery; displayed work at the Royal Academy, while also exhibiting across the Eastern US and participating in a Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. Although Marie managed to establish herself as a well-respected figure in the 19th Century, she is largely forgotten in today’s broader canon of art history. Her success in America has enabled retrospective displays that encapsulate a large range of her work; one such exhibition took place in 1982 and another is currently being hosted by The Delaware Art Museum, (set to tour to The Watts Gallery in the UK from March – June 2016). ‘Poetry in Beauty, The Pre-Raphaelite Art of Marie Spartali Stillman’ is a retrospective exhibition that showcases her importance within the Victorian avant-garde. The choice of The Delaware Art Museum is deliberate as it is this museum that holds the largest collection of Marie’s work in any museum, while the accompanying transatlantic tour illustrates the ‘dual career’ she managed across continents. Marie and her husband retired to England in 1896. Following William’s death in 1901, Marie continued creating and painting, but exhibited mainly in New York and Boston until her death in 1927. Her popularity and standing in society is indisputable as evidenced by the obituary published in The London Times in the days following her death.

“At her death in her eighty-fourth year, Marie Spartali Stillman was the last of the small circle of women who contributed significantly to the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Her intelligence, charm, sense of humour, and spirit were valued by the many people whose lives she touched.”

Selected Recommended Reading:

Elliot B. D., A Pre-Raphaelite Marriage: The Lives and Works of Marie Spartali Stillman and William James Stillman, ACC Art Books, 2005.

Marsh, J., Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists, Thames and Hudson, 1999.

Frederick S. M., Marsh, J., Poetry in Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelite Art of Marie Spartali Stillman, Marquand Books, 2015.