On “Poetry in Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelite Art of Marie Spartali Stillman” at the Watts Gallery, Surrey.
Editor’s note: In the April issue, Dominic Green’s review of London art exhibitions discusses the Pre-Raphaelite cult of Botticelli at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and an exhibition of Victorian drawings from the Lanigan Collection at the Leighton House Museum. Both of these exhibitions feature the work of Marie Spartali Stillman alongside that of her more famous male contemporaries. Meanwhile, the first exhibition of Stillman’s art, which originated at the Delaware Art Museum last year, has opened at the Watts Gallery.
It must have been fun to be a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but what about the sisterhood? According to the Brothers, there were two kinds of Pre-Raphaelite woman: the tubercular virgin who leans on a windowsill, as though she cannot carry the weight of her hair unsupported, and the beefy goddess, bending over her lyre to display the sinewy neck of a swan on steroids.
Marie Spartali Stillman was the third type of Pre-Raphaelite woman, an artist in the age of George Eliot, Emma Bovary, and Ibsen’s Nora Helmer. She was slow to benefit from the seemingly endless Pre-Raphaelite revival, which began in 1964. “Poetry in Beauty,” the current exhibition of Spartali Stillman’s work at the Watts Gallery is the first major exhibition since her death in 1927.
Born in 1844, Marie Spartali was the eldest daughter of Michael Spartali and Euphrosyne Varsami, prominent members of the London Greek merchant community. She grew up among art and artists. Her father was a cousin by marriage of Alexander Constantine Ionides, the patron of Rossetti, Watts, and Whistler. Having failed to obtain drawing lessons from Dante Gabriel Rossetti, she commenced studies in 1864 with Ford Madox Brown. Every summer, the Spartali family holidayed on the Isle of Wight, sharing in the genteel Bohemia that orbited around Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and which Virginia Woolf was to spoof in the private play, Freshwater. In 1868, another resident, Julia Margaret Cameron, photographed Marie in the Hellenic attitude of Mnemosyne.
In the spring of the previous year, 1867, Spartali had exhibited her first works at the Dudley Gallery. Now a social and artistic fixture in the “second generation” of Pre-Raphaelites, she became a close friend of William Morris and Edward Byrne-Jones, and a solid practitioner of the Dudley Gallery’s brand of dreamy medievalism. There are plenty of Dante-and-Boccaccio scenes in Poetry in Beauty. Many of them reflect the “second generation” turn towards post-Raphaelite influences, such as the Bolognese School and the freer, more painterly style that flowered after 1877 into the Aestheticism of the Grosvenor Gallery set, with whom Spartali also exhibited. Yet Spartali’s best work is more than a link in the chain of Victorian aestheticism. Its broader significance lies in two other areas, one artistic, the other social.
As the title of the Watts Gallery’s exhibition admits, in the classic Pre-Raphaelite portrait, the visual evokes the literary: beauty evokes poetry. Spartali’s portraits, especially those of the 1880s, are unusual in their psychological acuteness. The Pre-Raphaelite settings are familiar—the window ledges and Italianate gardens, the luxuriant tresses and Dantean echoes, the effulgence of flowers and fabrics—but the decorative details do not overcome the personality of the sitter. There is a complex and self-aware ambivalence to Spartali’s protagonists. They know that their impulses to poetry are buried by the demands of beauty. Their aestheticized setting is, to paraphrase the play that dramatized their social restriction, a doll’s house.
In 1871, Spartali married the Hellenophile American journalist and photographer William James Stillman, whose first wife had recently committed suicide. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, writing to Charles Eliot Norton, called their romance a “rapid act of annexation which has astonished all beholders,” including Spartali’s parents, who opposed the match. In “Self-Portrait” (1871), Spartali Stillman used what Henry James called a Pre-Raphaelite “type of face” and “treatment”—she leans on a balcony, after all—but the painted fan in her hand suggests the coming Aesthetic mood; the balcony might be that of a theater. Her face is tight, her thoughts inward.
Her marriage followed her husband’s career to the East Coast of the United States, then back to London, and then to Florence in 1878. Spartali Stillman made the most of the opportunities that arose, selling flower paintings and landscapes in New York and Boston, returning to London to take part in the Grosvenor Gallery’s watershed opening of 1877, absorbing the influence of Giovanni da Costa and the Etruscan School, and becoming part of the Anglo-American international of the late 1800s. Yet convention restricted her career. As a woman, she had been obliged to learn privately. Now, she could not be seen to promote her work too assiduously. In “Love’s Messenger” (1885), a dove lands in a woman’s palm. She accepts her lover’s note almost with resignation, the claws of the dove tight upon her thumb.
“Love’s Messenger” is a “problem picture,” an implied story of hints and missed details. The model for this painting was Spartali Stillman’s daughter Euphrosyne “Effie” Stillman who, by going on to study at the Slade under Alphonse Legros and exhibit as a sculptor at the Royal Academy, inherited her mother’s talent as well as her predicament.
“Love’s Messenger” failed to sell at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1885, and Spartali Stillman continued to exhibit it for another fifteen years. It ended up in Effie’s London studio, where the American collector Samuel Bancroft came across it in 1901. The exhibition at the Watts Gallery originated at the Delaware Art Museum, which was endowed by Bancroft’s heirs. The circular journey of the loaned paintings, with its echoes of the Atlantic crossings of Spartali Stillman’s own life, is a narrative completed—a problem picture filled in, and a half-sketched Pre-Raphaelite biography filled out.
“Poetry in Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelite Art of Marie Spartali Stillman” opened at the Watts Gallery, Compton, Surrey on March 1, and remains on view through June 5, 2106.
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