T he December sale of European & British Art includes two beautiful watercolours demonstrating the close connection between the Pre-Raphaelite circle of artists, the wealthy Anglo-Greek patrons who supported them and their beautiful and inspiring daughters. Venus Epithalamia by Edward Burne-Jones and his studio assistant Charles Fairfax Murray, was commissioned by Euphrosyne Cassavetti and depicts her daughter Maria Zambaco, whilst Gelsomina was painted by Euphrosyne’s brilliant niece Maria Stillman and almost certainly depicts her step-daughter Lisa. Who were these women and what was their influence in the London art scene of the 1870s and 1880s?
Known by her friends as ‘The Duchess’, Euphrosyne Cassavetti was the cultured, dynamic and slightly eccentric sister of one of the most avid patrons of the Aesthetic movement, the shipping magnate Alexander Constantine Ionides, whose gift of over a thousand pictures to the Victoria & Albert Museum, form the core of its art collection. Her own support of artists, architects and designers was significant – in 1870 and 1871, she commissioned Philip Webb to build extensions to her homes at Holland Villas Road in Kensington and Fairfield Lodge at a cost of almost £6,000, much to the horror of her husband Alexander. In the same year she commissioned her friend Edward Burne-Jones to paint a gift for the marriage of her niece Marie Spartali. The gift was far from conventional – a naked depiction of the bride’s cousin Maria in the guise of the Goddess of Love, Venus Epithalamia.
The beautiful profile and mass of flame-red hair of Maria Zambaco (nee Cassavetti) has made her one of the most significant of the Pre-Raphaelite muses and it is her beauty that inspired the majority of Edward Burne-Jones’ later pictures. She had left her husband in Paris in 1866 and moved to London to live with her mother and to study to be a sculptor. Soon after her arrival, Euphrosyne commissioned Burne-Jones to paint a portrait of her daughter and to tutor her in drawing in his studio, thus sparking a flame of passion which almost destroyed the reputations of both painter and pupil. During their twice weekly lessons the artist and pupil fell in love.
Despite being married, Burne-Jones was smitten with the vivacious and striking young woman. She became the inspiration for his art and Euphrosyne encouraged Zambaco to pose for Burne-Jones – for Euphrosyne he painted Maria as Galatea, the classical idea of feminine and artistic perfection and he painted her as Psyche, the mortal maiden who was so beautiful that Cupid himself fell in love with her. In Burne-Jones’ portrait of Maria he made the connection between her and Venus (Aphrodite) very clear, with the inclusion of the putti drawing back the curtain and the arrow entwined with a note bearing her name. Soon after completion of this portrait Burne-Jones painted Maria as a princess from classical literature in his notorious watercolour Phyllis and Demophoon the nudity of which shocked visitors to the Old Watercolour Society and led to his resignation. It was the nudity of the male figure that was controversial but Burne-Jones was not to be dissuaded from celebrating the naked human form. When Euphrosyne asked him to paint a gift to celebrate her niece Maria Spartali’s wedding, he chose to paint a naked Maria as Venus in her guise as the instigator of marriages, Venus Epitahlamia. The version included in the December sale was painted for Euphrosyne who had been so impressed by the first version that she commissioned one for her own collection – it hung in her bedroom.
'Independently wealthy, unconventional, tempestuous and determined, Maria was a lover who refused to be quietly adored'
Burne-Jones was a man who became infatuated with several younger women who he regarded as muses for his art but although he lavished adoration upon them, the line was rarely crossed – until he met Maria. Independently wealthy, unconventional, tempestuous and determined, she was a lover who refused to be quietly adored and Burne-Jones began to see that she wanted more than he was prepared to give.
When he told her that he would never leave his ever-faithful wife Georgiana, Maria was enraged and Burne-Jones took flight, leaving her ‘tearing up the quarters of his friends’ to use Rossetti’s words. When he eventually returned, she threatened to kill herself and there was an embarrassing scene beside the Regent’s Canal where Burne-Jones was almost arrested for rolling in the gutter with Maria as he prevented her from leaping into the water. The storm had broken and the affair was over but they remained in contact and Maria’s face continued to dominate Burne-Jones’ art.
'The painting was unconventional and tinged with scandal - but so too was the marriage'
It is interesting that Burne-Jones painted Maria as Venus Epithalamia (the Venus of Marriage – an ‘epithalamia’ being a nuptial song sung on the wedding night). Venus was the Goddess of Love whose own marriage was an unhappy one. Wed to the lame Vulcan, God of the Forge, Venus was in love with Mars, the God of War. Burne-Jones’ wedding gift clearly reflects his feelings for Maria and her rejection of her husband Dr Demetrius Zambaco. Venus Epithalamia was designed to celebrate the marriage of Marie, the daughter of the wealthy Greek Consul-General Michael Spartali, cousin of Euphrosyne. The painting was unconventional and tinged with scandal but so too was the marriage – Marie married an impoverished American journalist and photographer whose first wife had committed suicide. Her parents did not approve and did not attend the wedding.
Like her cousin Maria, Marie was artistically gifted, independently-minded and strikingly beautiful. The poet Swinburne said that she was so beautiful that when he first met her he wanted to sit down and cry. Burne-Jones, Rossetti and Madox Brown encouraged her to paint and she became one of the most accomplished female Pre-Raphaelites. Her watercolour Gelsomina is a gorgeous example of her work, influenced by Burne-Jones’ and Rossetti’s depictions of women. It was rediscovered in a collection in America and is reproduced here for the first time.
Venus Epithalamia and Gelsomina depict the two aspects of Pre-Raphaelite aestheticism – the inspiration of classical romance and beauty and the echo of the Italian renaissance. Whilst both titles are Italian, their inspiration was from the beauty of Greece and each celebrate the important roles that Maria Zambaco and Marie Spartali (Stillman) have in the art world of late nineteenth century London.