Portrait of Marie Spartali, Mrs W. J. Stillman

PRE-RAPHAELITE (founded 1848) Biography

Portrait of Marie Spartali, Mrs W. J. Stillman (England, c.1880)

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Oil on canvas


69.00cm high
48.00cm wide
(27.17 inches high)
(18.90 inches wide)
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Description / Expertise

Although Marie Stillman was considered an extremely beautiful woman and came from a wealthy and cultured background, Burne-Jones, characteristically, has portrayed her without finery, rich colour or sparkling effects, which was his way. Instead, she is presented in three-quarter view, head bowed, quietly meditating, in muted colours. For Burne-Jones, portraits were not public offerings, but personal reflections on people that he cared for.

Unlike much of Victorian portraiture that celebrates the material glamour of the subject, Burne-Jones relies only on his chosen palette to convey her character. Neither does the sitter challenge the viewer; with averted gaze she appears self-absorbed by her own inner world, into which we are drawn. For Burne-Jones the direction of a gaze had great significance. Rarely did he use direct confrontation unless it was to emphasise the role of the character portrayed. Marie’s portrait gently invites the viewer to reflect on her mood. She becomes, for us, a symbol. Whether this is a true likeness or not becomes irrelevant. Her role is both to convey a vision of herself (she was an artist also ) and to portray Burne-Jones’s vision. He utilised her likeness to meditate upon female beauty and its transience.

In the shadow of an unhappy love affair with Lord Ranelagh, Marie Spartali had married Rossetti’s American friend William Stillman, a widower with three young children. Her father was horrified and for a time broke all contact, while her friends questioned how this pearl of women, as Rossetti once described her, could throw herself away on an ill-fated New Englander. Although it was a difficult marriage with long, endless journeys between America, England and Italy, Marie remained as mesmerising to the Pre-Raphaelite circle as when her gentle, serene beauty first caught their attention in the early 1860s. She and her younger sister Christine, later to model for Whistler’s La Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine, had first been noticed and caused a sensation with their striking good looks at a garden party at Alexander Ionides’s house at Tulse Hill, south-east London.

Graham Robertson wrote of the two sisters: Theirs was 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. He then went on to compare the beauties of Marie and Jane Morris, who, he described as too grand, too sombre to appeal to every eye. But, he continued, I always recommended would-be but wavering worshippers to start with Mrs. Stillman (Marie Spartali), 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.

Rossetti confessed that he found her head about the most difficult I ever drew. It depends not nearly so much on real form as on a subtle charm of life which one cannot recreate. He painted her in Dante’s Dream (1869-71, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), The Bower Meadow (1872, Manchester City Art Gallery) and A Vision of Fiammetta (1878, Private Collection).

Marie had a special significance for Burne-Jones, coming as she did from the Greek colony, which included many of his close friends, and from where his lifelong obsession, Maria Zambaco, also derived. Maria and Marie are two of the dancers in Burne-Jones’s painting, The Mill (1872-80, Victoria and Albert Museum, London), which had been inspired by Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s mural The Effects of Good Government (1338-40, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena). The artist has metamorphosed the chain of dancing girls into three of his beautiful friends from the Greek community, Maria Zambaco, Aglaia Coronio and Marie Spartali, and set them amongst an idealised landscape that evokes Lorenzetti’s mural. In these elements we have the key to Burne-Jones’s perception of his mission as an artist. Primarily he saw himself as a part of the great cultural tradition of western Europe. But within his beloved Gothic vision, he felt that by using his creative gifts he could bring lost paradise back to Earth. By drawing on the circumstances that he experienced in his own life and including his immediate friends in his paintings, he believed that heaven could be materialised through his art- an ‘Earthly Paradise’.(1)

1. Bill Waters, Cumbria, 2003