In 1869 Dante Gabriel Rossetti drew for the first time a striking new model named Marie Spartali, for several of the studies for one of his greatest later works Dante's Dream at the Time of the Death of Beatrice (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool). Rossetti wrote 'I find her head about the most difficult I ever drew. It depends not nearly so much on real form as on subtle charm of life which one cannot re-create.' (Andrea Rose, Pre-Raphaelite Portraits, 1981, pg. 106). Despite the difficulties, Rossetti persevered to make at least three drawings in 1870 for the head of the attendant on the right in Dante’s Dream, one of which is at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University and another sold in these rooms (1 July 2004, lot 22). A similar drawing of Marie drawn in 1869 is in the collection of Lord Lloyd Webber, although this appears to be an independent portrait rather than a study for Dante's Dream.
The composition of Dante’s Dream had been devised in 1856 for a watercolour (Tate) which depicts an incident from the Vita Nuova in which Dante is led to the bier of Beatrice by the figure of love as two lofty attendants lower a pall strewn with may-flowers and poppies. In 1869 William Graham commissioned Rossetti to paint a second version in his more mature style, which eventually materialised on a scale far beyond Graham’s wishes. This picture, which bears the date 1871, is Rossetti’s largest and most ambitious painting and held much personal significance to the artist as a symbol of his love for Jane Morris who posed for Beatrice (the first version had depicted his wife Elizabeth Siddall).
Born 10 March 1844, Marie Euphrosyne Spartali was the youngest daughter of Euphrosyne and Michael Spartali, a wealthy and cosmopolitan merchant and later Greek consul general for London. Marie and her sister Christine and brother Demetrius were raised in a large house in Clapham, which became the centre of the Greek community in the 1860s. The Anglo-Greek connoisseur Constantine Ionides who patronised Burne-Jones and Rossetti and whose collection is now at the Victoria and Albert Museum, was a great friend of the Spartalis and it was probably this connection that led to Marie being 'discovered' by the Pre-Raphaelites. Marie was also a close friend of Maria Zambaco (nee Cassavetti), Burne-Jones’ mistress and model and Aglaia Coronio the confidante of both Rossetti and William Morris and the three women were known as the ‘Three Graces’ after their Greek heritage and striking beauty. It is said that the Spartali girls’ debut was made in the late 1860s at a garden party in Tulse Hill given by relations of the Ionides family, where their arrival caused a stir among the invited artists. 'We were all á genoux before them and of course every one of us burned with a desire to paint them' recalled the artist Thomas Armstrong. The perceptive Graham Robertson described Marie thus, ‘… a lofty beauty, gracious and noble; the beauty worshipped in Greece of old, yet with a wistful tenderness of poise, a mystery of shadowed eyes that gave life to what might have been a marble goddess.’ (Graham Robertson, Time Was, 1931, pg. 13) whilst the poet Swinburne exclaimed that she was ‘so beautiful I feel as if I could sit down and cry’ (Thomas Armstrong, A Memoir 1832-1911, 1912, pg. 195).
Around 1864 Marie posed for a series of exquisite photographs by the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron and among the most notable costumed portraits of Marie are Hypatia, Mnemosyne and The Spirit of the Vine. She also posed for portraits by Watts and Prinsep and was painted by Spencer Stanhope as Patience on a Monument Smiling at Grief in 1887 (De Morgan Foundation) and by Burne-Jones as Danae in 1884 (Glasgow Art Gallery). Marie was also the model for several imposing later works by Rossetti including The Vision of Fiametta of 1878 (private collection), The Bower Meadow (Manchester City Art Gallery) and the unfinished Desdemona's Death Song (drawings at Birmingham City Art Gallery and the Collection of Lord Lloyd Webber). Softer, prettier and more Teutonic features than those of Jane Morris and Alexa Wilding, more graceful and less sensual than Fanny Cornforth or Annie Miller, Marie had a more elegant and dignified beauty than any of the other 'stunners' painted by Rossetti. The astute Robertson explained her appeal as a model thus, 'I always recommended would-be but wavering worshippers to start with Mrs. Stillman, who was, so to speak, Mrs. Morris for beginners. The two marvels had many points in common: the same lofty stature, the same long sweep of limb, the 'neck like a tower', the night-dark tresses and the eyes of mystery, yet Mrs. Stillman's loveliness conformed to the standard of ancient Greece and could at once be appreciated, while study of her trained the eye to understand the more esoteric beauty of Mrs Morris and 'trace in Venus' eyes the gaze of Proserpine.' (Ibid Robertson, p. 95).
Marie’s charm was not limited to her physical beauty and she was possessing of a warm and generous personality, great intelligence and much artistic talent. She was arguably the most talented of the female Pre-Raphaelite artists, painting over a hundred works in the 1870s and 1880s in a rich style derived from that of Rossetti and of Ford Madox Brown. She will be perhaps always be best remembered as a Pre-Raphaelite model, one of the small group of women whose faces shaped the British notion of beauty. However her paintings have the same whimsical romance as those of her male counterparts and she often came close to greatness. A major exhibition of her work, Poetry in Beauty will be held at Delaware Art Museum from 7 November 2015 to 31 January 2016.
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