Jeanne Rathbone

Marie Spartali, Pre-Raphaelite artist

Posted in Marie Spartali Pre-Raphaelite artist by sheelanagigcomedienne on May 4, 2018

Marie Spartali 1844 -1923 was a British Pre-Raphaelite painter of Greek descent, arguably the greatest female artist of that movement. During a sixty-year career, she produced over one hundred works, contributing regularly to exhibitions in Great Britain and the United States. She is one of my Notable Women of Lavender Hill. She lived in the Shrubbery in Lavender Gardens with her parents then at 40 Altenburg Gardens nearby with her husband in 1874.

She is definitely as important as the ‘brotherhood’ but has been overlooked as she was also a beautiful and statuesque model for them.

Yet she is still virtually unknown and underrepresented in the canon of art history. How many of you had heard of her and that she had lived in Battersea? She lived in the Shrubbery in Lavender Gardens.

There was a recent small exhibition of her work in the Watts Gallery’s in March-June 2016. Dr Nick Tromans, Curator of Watts Gallery, comments: “Like Mary Watts and Evelyn De Morgan (both artists whose work can be seen at Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village) Marie Spartali is part of the first wave of British women who were able to train as professional artists. We are delighted to host this exhibition, which continues our commitment to celebrating the work and achievements of Victorian women artists.”

This had followed on from the larger exhibition held at the Delaware Gallery in January that year which owns some of her art work.

 Poetry in Beauty, the first retrospective of Spartali Stillman’s work, showcased approximately 50 works by the artist. Spartali Stillman’s style reflects her British Pre-Raphaelite training as well as the influence of Renaissance art, derived from the many years she lived and worked in Italy. Works from public and private collections in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada, many of which have not been exhibited since Spartali Stillman’s lifetime were featured. In spite of her success, her contribution to 19th century art is barely recognised today. This exhibition includes examples of her landscapes, portraits and subject paintings, many of which have not been displayed since her death.

Her work has largely been overlooked due to the fact that most of it resides in private collections, but moreover that her status as model to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood overshadowed her career as artist. She sat for numerous paintings by Ford Madox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones, James McNeill Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, as well as photographs for Julia Margaret Cameron.

Maria Spartali was the eldest daughter of Michael Spartali (1818–1914), a wealthy merchant, principal of the firm Spartali and Co and Greek consul-general based in London from 1866 to 1882. He had moved to London around 1828. In London, he married Euphrosyne, known as Effie.


The family lived in their Georgian house with a marble-pillared circular hallway, on Clapham Common known as the ‘The Shrubbery’ with a huge garden and views over the Thames and Chelsea. St Barnabas Church was built in front of it by the very vigorous Erskine Clark Built: 1897 it was used as parish halls before being sold in 1986 and converted into flats. One of my children attended the playgroup there which was in the ballroom. There is information of this in the invaluable Survey of London Battersea sections.

In the summer months, they moved to their country house on the Isle of Wight where they were in the company . In London, her father was fond of lavish garden parties where he invited up and coming young writers and artists of his day. They shared in the genteel Bohemia that orbited around Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Julia Margaret Cameron, photographed Marie in the Hellenic attitude of Mnemosyne.

In London her father frequently hosted garden parties to which he invited young, up-and-coming artists and writers. Her father was a cousin Alexander Ionides, businessman and patron of Rossetti, Watts, and Whistler. It was was in the Ionides home in Tulse Hill that Marie and her sister Christina met Whistler and Swinburne for the first time.

They were dressed in white with blue ribbon sashes. Swinburne was so overcome that he said of Marie: “She is so beautiful that I want to sit down and cry”. Marie was an imposing figure6 ft 3 in tall and, in her later years, dressed in long flowing black garments with a lace hood, attracting much attention throughout her life. This is how Spartali’s exceptional, unique beauty came to the attention of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

As a beautiful beautiful, throughout her lifetime, Marie would come to be more valued for her role as an artist’s model. She became a close friend of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. She, alongside her cousins Maria Zambaco and Aglaia Coronio, collectively came to be known as The Three Graces.

Discontent with being purely the recipient of male gazes, Spartali desired to become an artist herself, and in 1864 she begged her father to allow her to study drawing and painting under Ford Madox Brown, the eldest member of the Pre-Raphaelite circle. She trained with him for six years, during which she continued modeling for her artist-friends trained in watercolors, a technique routinely taught to middle and upper class Victorian women. Throughout her career, Marie chose to work primarily in a mixture of watercolor, gouache, and graphite, innovating her own technique with the addition of heavy, opaque pigments and additives that gave her work a jewel-like tone and the overall quality of an oil painting.

Her paintings adapt the typical Pre-Raphaelite themes of female figures and literary characters, in addition to traditionally ‘feminine’ subjects of landscapes and floral still lifes. Her paintings of women ‘revised the way Pre-Raphaelite women were represented.

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 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 highly devoted to her art and produced a prolific body of around 170 works. In 1867, after only three years as Brown’s student, she made her artistic debut exhibiting her work at the Dudley Gallery in London where she contributed three paintings: an Ottoman pasha’s widow, the Theban poet Corinna, and the allegorical damsel Prays-Desire from Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene.

Soon after, in 1870, she was exhibiting at the Royal Academy, which had only opened its doors to women students a mere ten years prior, and from which women were routinely rejected from exhibitions and denied professional memberships up until the twentieth century. She displayed seven paintings there between 1870 and 1877; her routine acceptance to the Royal Academy’s exhibitions, which excluded even male watercolorists up until the 1880s, is a testimony to her talent and reputation as an artist. From 1867 to 1908, Marie Spartali regularly exhibited paintings at multiple venues and had dealers selling her work on both sides of the Atlantic. She went on to contribute her work to the Grosvenor Gallery in London from 1877 to 1887, displaying a total of seventeen paintings, and regularly sent her paintings to Liverpool and Manchester galleries, as well as to various venues in the Eastern United States.

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

She went on to travel to the United States in the early 1900s where she exhibited her work at Curtis and Cameron’s Gallery in Boston, as well as Julius Ochme’s in New York, making her the only Britain-based Pre-Raphaelite artist to work in the United States. Throughout her career, she consistently exhibited several pictures a year and sold work regularly.

In 1871, against her parents’ wishes, she married American journalist and painter William J Stillman. She was friend Jeanie Nassau Senior and they used to meet in her home nearby in Elm House. She was his second wife, his first having committed suicide two years before. However, they obviously reconciled. When Altenburg Gardens  was developed on the grounds of the Shrubbery the Survey of London states:The Vicar of Battersea, John Erskine Clarke moved in to No. 40 in 1872, and was to stay thirty years. Other early settlers included the painter Marie Spartali and her husband, the American journalist and photographer William J. Stillman, who moved into No. 44 in 1874, in what Stillman called ‘that then delightful neighbourhood’. The house backed on to the garden of the Shrubbery, Marie’s parental home. ( Her parents left the Shrubbery in 1885 when he went bankrupt and moved to their Isle of Wight home.  Erskine Clark had  St Barnabas Church built in front of the Shrubbery and Lavender Gardens and more of Altenburg Gardens were developed.)

The couple had posed for Rossetti in his famous Dante pictures.

He first worked for the American Art Magazine, The Crayon. His later job was a foreign correspondent for The Times. His job as a foreign correspondent resulted in the couple dividing their time between London and Florence from 1878 to 1883, and then Rome from 1889 to 1896. She also travelled to America, and was the only Britain-based Pre-Raphaelite artist to work in the United States. William was a friend of Rossetti’s.

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.

Marie was good friends of William and Jane Morris and visited them at Kelmscott Manor.

The couple had three children together and Marie also helped to raise William’s three children from his first marriage. William Stillman died in 1901. Marie Spartali died in March 1927 in Ashburn Place in South Kensington. She was cremated at Brookwood Crematorium Surrey, and is interred there with her husband. There is a headstone. There is a Spartali Mausoleum at West Norwood cemetery.

Spartali mausoleum West Norwood


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