Thursday, 17 March 2016

Marie Euphrosyne Spartali Stillman

The photograph above is of the classically beautiful young Marie Euphrosyne Spartali posing as the goddess of memory, Mnemosyne, and was taken by Julia Margaret Cameron in the 1860s. Mrs Cameron was much maligned as a photographer in her day. To contemporary tastes her photography was sloppy and uneven, insufficiently formal, but she found admirers among the Pre-Raphaelites, and it was among that nascent artistic circle that she associated at Little Holland House in Kensington; it was in the salon there that this photograph and others with Miss Spatali as model was taken. Here is another:

Mrs Cameron was born in Calcutta, and Little Holland House was leased by Henry Thoby Prinseps of the artistic Prinsep family, directors of the East India Company. This current blog featured an earlier post on the superb draughtsmanship of James Prinsep, once resident in the sacred city of Benares. (See here.) In this present post we begin by underlining the connection of the Prinseps to the Pre-Raphaelite movement. British India both attracted and gave birth to highly creative and intelligent men and women. Mrs Cameron, hosted by Mr Prinsep at Little Holland House, was among them. The influence of the east via these connections - an orientalist influence, that is to say - was part of the Pre-Raphaelite heritage from the outset. This is sometimes not fully appreciated.

Little Holland House, one of the places where the early circle of the Pre-Rephaelite Brotherhood met. It was demolished after the lease contracted by Mr Prinsep expired. 

In any case, Marie Euphrosyne Spartali, of wealthy Greek Orthodox background, was introduced to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, its circle and its ideals, through the photography sessions with Mrs Cameron, the exact connection being that Mrs Cameron owned a house next to the Spartali family's vineyard on the Isle of Wight. She took this Miss Spartali to Kensington and introduced her to such figures as Dante Gabriel Rosetti and George Frederic Watts. Smitten with Miss Spartali's Hellenic beauty, these artists eagerly adopted her as a model. She features in many famous works in the Pre-Raphaelite canon. Here she is, for instance, in a work by Rosetti, A Vision of Fiammetta (1878) :

At length, however, she married an older gentleman, also part of the same circle, an American art critic named William James Stillman. The marriage was against her family's wishes, and proved to be difficult, but it furthered her connections to the world of artists and provoked her to seek training in drawing and painting. She was particularly taken by the work of Mr Rosetti and approached him to be her teacher. Rosetti, too busy, declined but recommended she approach Ford Maddox Brown. This she did - once more through the salon at the Prinsep's Little Holland House - and she began her own artistic career. She trained under Mr Brown's tutelage for some ten years. 

This is all by way of introducing her here as one of the present author's favourite Pre-Raphaelites. There are many "lost" Pre-Raphaelites, and it is fashionable these days to lament their neglect - especially the neglect of the females. In the case of the work of Mrs Spartali Stillman the neglect is particularly lamentable, because she was a very fine artist who received scant recognition in her own time or since. When she died she noted in her Will that it seemed odd to make a Will when she had nothing of worth to bequeath. In fact, she left a canon of extremely fine paintings in the Ruskinesque Pre-Raphaelite quasi-Quattrocento style; literary subjects, often neo-medievalist, characterized by complex rather than formulaic compositions, an intensity of colour - as opposed to the gloomy browns of academic painting - and a loving attention to pattern, texture and detail. 

Here is one of her most 'orientalist' works, Woman with Lute. We see the unmistakeable Pre-Raphaelite style adapted to a distinctly orientalist purpose. 

A great many of Mrs Spartali Stillman's work are depictions of single female figures in wistful poses, highly reminiscent of Mr Rosetti's work. Here is a typical example, more medieval Christian and less orientalist in tenor, Cloister Lilies:


Possibly her best painting in this genre is the delightful Madonna Pietra degli Scrovigni, from 1884, see below. There is a sense of the mystical in this work, the Madonna clutching a dark crystal ball. Like much of Mrs Spartali Stillman's oeuvre it is done in watercolor and gouache on paper, but with heavy, opaque applications of colour that makes it seem like an oil painting, a method promoted by Edward Burne-Jones and other members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle. It is a method that Mrs Spartali Stillman perfected. 

But it is in larger paintings set in landscapes that we see more of her unique talent. It is in these paintings that she stands apart. For example, see one of her very best paintings, the dramatic, bleak isolation of Antigone, below:

Another beautiful painting captures a scene from Boccaccio's Decameron. From 1889 it is entitled, The Enchanted Garden, or more fully, The Enchanted Garden of Messer Ansaldo, or, more fully still, Messer Ansaldo showing Madonna Dionara his Enchanted Garden. Messer Ansaldo falls in love with Madonna Dionara, a faithfully married woman. In an attempt to woo her - deploying sorcery - he makes his winter garden blossom like spring (though, gallantly, does not dishonour her in the end.) It is likely that Mrs Spartali Stillman's painting was the inspiration for the more famous Enchanted Garden of Mr John Waterhouse from 1916. Mrs Spartali Stillman's work is here below:

Several very charming paintings of a distinctly neo-medievalist tone, all of them set on the grounds of Kelmscott Manor, the home of Mr William and Mrs Jane Morris - another artistic centre like Little Holland House - are among this writer's personal favorites and demonstrate the best aspects of Mrs Spartali Stillman's talent. Morris, and Rosetti and the Pre-Raphaelites, took inspiration from the gothic manor and its organic surrounds. Mrs Spartali Stillman did as well. Her paintings of the manor and its grounds are especially attractive, although they deviate from many of the Pre-Raphaelite norms. They are not literary, for example, or based upon Renaissance models. They are more folkish, more naif. The artist is more herself and less an admirer of Rosetti in these works. Here are four such paintings, all of them splendid:

Kelmscott Manor: Feeding Doves in Kitchen Yard

The Long Walk at Kelmscott Manor

A Lady in the Garden, Kelmscott Manor

From the Field, Kelmscott Manor

In her later career, Mrs Spartali Stillman moved to Italy where her husband was working. There she turned to Tuscan landscapes and other Italian themes, building upon the Quattrocento themes of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. To this writer's tastes, though, her Tuscan work is not so enchanting, although much of it remains in private collections and is rarely available for public display. This, rather than some Victorian conspiracy against female artists, is largely what accounts for the on-going neglect of her work. Unfortunately, almost all discussion of her art is today part of the tiresome oppressed-woman-artist narrative typical of our times. There is much more of interest in her work than what can be seen through the filter of her gender. Quite apart from such contemporary preoccupations, she is a deserving artist with a distinct character who used the Pre-Raphaelite style as a medium for her own unique viewpoint. Readers can be assured that she is not featured here because she is a woman, but because she is good. 


Harper McAlpine Black

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