Marie Spartali Stillman 1: Love’s Messenger

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927), Love's Messenger (1885), watercolor, tempera and gold paint on paper mounted on wood, 81.3 × 66 cm, Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, DE. Wikimedia Commons.

One of the most prolific and significant of the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood was Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927).

She was born Marie Euphrosyne Spartali in Hornsey, Middlesex, to the west of London. Her parents were wealthy merchants; father, Michael Spartali (1818-1914), had moved to Britain as a boy, and his successful trading had enabled him to buy a large Georgian house on Clapham Common, which was then in the country south of the city. Among his trades were objets d’arts and archaeological objects from the Middle East (some of which are now in the British Museum and others). He enjoyed the company of rising writers and artists, and held garden parties and dinners to cultivate them.

His business connections resulted in being appointed Consul-General for Greece in London, a role which he held from 1866 to 1879. Unfortunately his business then went through a bad patch, and in 1885 he went bankrupt. He and his wife were able to retain much of their possessions, and he seems to have recovered quite quickly. Following that, Marie’s parents seem to have largely retired to live in one of the properties which they had used on the Isle of Wight as summer homes.

In her late teens, Marie associated with her cousins Maria Zambaco and Aglaia Coronio, who became collectively called The Three Graces for their beauty and grace. In 1863, they became known to Whistler, Swinburne, and then members of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and were frequently used as models for their paintings. In 1864, she started as a pupil of Ford Madox Brown, and for two days each week he taught her in his studio.

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1879), Marie Spartali Stillman (1868), albumen silver print from wet-collodion glass negative, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Wikimedia Commons.

Marie Spartali was first sent to the pioneer photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1879) at her father’s wish (and cost). Cameron’s Marie Spartali Stillman (1868) is an example from that commissioned series. Later, Mrs Cameron put her in a variety of roles as a model, in her studio at Freshwater on the Isle of Wight, close by Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s winter residence there. Cameron was one of the earliest ‘artistic’ portrait photographers, specialising in women.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), Marie Spartali Stillman (1869), red chalk on greenish paper, 62.2 × 47 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

The following year, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) sketched her in red chalk; Rossetti was among the core members of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and openly expressed his admiration of her beauty, and his inability to capture it in his work. He used her as a model for several of his paintings.

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927), Mariana (1867), watercolor and gouache on paper, 38.1 × 27.4 cm. Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Mariana (1867) is an accomplished watercolour version of this popular motif, set here in the context of Shakespeare’s character in Measure for Measure, and Tennyson’s poem of 1830. In the former, Mariana is a betrothed woman who, when rejected by her suitor, lives in a moated house. In the latter, the rejected and world-weary woman becomes suicidal. Despite a favourable reception when shown in the Dudley Gallery, Marie kept the painting, and it didn’t re-appear until the 1980s. It was probably an inspiration for Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Mariana of 1868-70.

She first exhibited five watercolours in the Dudley Gallery in 1867. Shortly afterwards, she met and fell in love with the American journalist and minor painter William J Stillman. He had recently lost his wife, and had three children from that marriage. In 1870, Marie exhibited for the first time at the Royal Academy in London.

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927), Self-Portrait (1871), charcoal and white chalk on paper, 64.5 × 52.4 cm, Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, DE. Wikimedia Commons.

Her Self-Portrait (1871) was a study in charcoal and white chalk which she turned into a watercolour painting in 1874 and exhibited in Boston later that year. It is fascinating for including elements of both the Pre-Raphaelite in terms of her mediaeval costume and Renaissance treatment, and the Aesthetic in the Japanese fan.

Although opposed by her father, in 1871 Marie and William married in Chelsea Register Office, London, following which they celebrated their wedding breakfast in Ford Madox Brown’s house. The following year, their first child, Euphrosyne (‘Effie’) was born, and her parents welcomed them into a small cottage near the family home on Clapham Common. Her husband had difficulty in obtaining work, and Marie had to run the household and bring up their family; in spite of those heavy demands on her time, she kept painting.

In 1872, Marie paid her first visit to Kelmscott Manor, near Lechlade in Gloucestershire, England, where William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were driving forward the new derivatives from the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including the Arts and Crafts movement. Marie remained good friends with the Morrises and Rossettis thereafter.

Having laid the groundwork in their working honeymoon, in 1873 Marie had her first paintings shown in a Boston, MA, gallery. She maintained a presence in the US from then until close to her death.

In 1876, William Stillman was employed by The Times newspaper as its correspondent in the Balkans, and he left London to work there, increasing the household demands on Marie. She had another important success at the Royal Academy that year, in the exhibition of a painting, The Last Sight of Fiammetta, which has subsequently been lost. That same painting was exhibited (alongside paintings by Burne-Jones and others) at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1878.

In 1877 she was one of the 64 artists invited to inaugurate the Grosvenor Gallery in London, as an alternative to the Royal Academy.

William Stillman moved with his work, and in the spring of 1878, the family moved to Florence, which he used as a more central base for his journalistic work.

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927), Fiammetta Singing (1879), watercolor, gouache and graphite on paper, 74.6 × 100.3 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Fiammetta Singing (1879) was the second painting that she made based on Boccaccio’s poetry, here the sonnet Of Fiammetta Singing, probably using Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s verse translation. Her third tribute to Boccaccio was By a Clear Well, Within a Little Field (1883), below.

Fiammetta, in red at the left, sings to the accompaniment of a lute, and with six other women in support (one of whom rests to the left of Fiammetta, with her lute). Boccaccio is seen to the right, behind, his ship waiting for him in the distance. Fiammetta carries a fan of peacock feathers, more typical of the likes of Whistler and Oscar Wilde, but the whole painting merges multiple artistic modalities – music, visual art, poetry – which is characteristic of the Aesthetics.

While they were based in Florence, Marie returned each summer with her children to her parents’ residence on the Isle of Wight, which enabled her to keep in touch with the London art scene.

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927), “Certain ladies of her companionship gathered themselves unto Beatrice…” (1880), watercolour and gouache over traces of graphite on paper on backing, 85.1 x 63.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

The full title of her “Certain ladies of her companionship gathered themselves unto Beatrice…” (1880) actually quotes even more from Dante’s Vita Nuova:
Certain ladies of her companionship gathered themselves unto Beatrice where she kept alone in weeping. And as they passed in and out, I would hear them speak concerning her, how she wept.

This refers to the ladies of Florence who paid their respects to Beatrice as she kept vigil following her father’s death. Dante is shown sat outside the house, wearing his customary chaperon hat, his head bowed, and comforted by two of the women who had visited Beatrice inside. This was shown at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1880.

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927), A Wreath of Roses (A Crown of Roses) (1880), watercolour and gouache on paper, 53 × 69 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

In contrast to the Italianate settings of the previous two paintings, her Wreath of Roses (1880) is very English, and may have mainly been painted during the previous year in England, when she stayed for the summer at her parents’ house in Shanklin, Isle of Wight. It’s likely that her two step-daughters, Lisa (then 15) and Bella (12) acted as models. The view through the bottle-glass window has been extensively modified, though: the house has diamond-pane leaded windows, not bottle-glass, neither does it have a moat.

She also returned to Clapham Common for the birth of their third child in 1881, who sadly died the following spring in Florence.

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927), The Childhood of Saint Cecily (1883), watercolour and graphite heightened by gouache, 101 x 74 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

The Childhood of Saint Cecily (1883) was one of the last paintings which she composed in Florence, as reflected in its idealised Tuscan background. As with so many paintings of saints, it departs from even the most inventive of hagiographies, here for the patron saint of music, Cecilia. The saint is shown playing a harp-like psaltery, while an angel adjusts the garland on her head. It was shown at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1883, but did not receive favourable review.

In the autumn of 1883, the family moved back to London, where she developed a friendship with the young John Singer Sargent.

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927), By a Clear Well, Within a Little Field (1883), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

By a Clear Well, Within a Little Field (1883) is her third and concluding painting based on Boccaccio’s sonnets. That tells of three young women seated “by a clear well, within a little field” who relate their loves. Each has “twined” a small tree branch to shield her face, and put their golden hair in shadow.

The woman at the right is spinning, and it’s tempting to suggest that the trio might represent the three Fates. But the absence of their other attributes – particularly scissors or shears – makes that unlikely. The other two women are covering their heads with small branches from the chestnut tree, as described in the sonnet. Its landscape is neither overtly Tuscan, nor recognisably British, and the well and trees could be almost anywhere in western Europe. It was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1884.

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927), Madonna Pietra degli Scrovigni (1884), watercolor, and gouache on paper, 78.7 × 61 cm, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Madonna Pietra degli Scrovigni (1884) was one of her first major works following her return to England, and was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in the summer of 1884. It was accompanied by a translation of the poem, a sestina by Dante of the same title, describing a woman who is as cold as stone in a wintry landscape. The painting’s symbols not only reflect the details of the poem, but may form homage to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who had died two years earlier.

That September, though, her own family problems became dominant. First her sister Christina died apparently as the result of a drug overdose, leaving teenage sons. Then the following year her father’s business went onto the rocks, he had to petition for bankruptcy, and the family mansion on Clapham Common was sold. Thankfully her parents did manage to keep at least one of their properties on the Isle of Wight, the lovely Rylstone Manor in Shanklin.

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927), Antigone Giving Burial Rites to the Body of Her Brother Polynices (date not known), oil on canvas, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Antigone Giving Burial Rites to the Body of Her Brother Polynices is unusual, as she painted it in oils. Her letters of 1883 record that she was learning Burne-Jones’s technique of oil-painting, and that year and the next she purchased oil paints and ancillaries.

Polynices and Eteocles, the sons of Oedipus, quarrelled over which should rule Thebes, leading to their deaths. King Creon, who succeeded them, decreed that Polynices was neither to be mourned nor buried, on pain of death by stoning. Polynices’ sister, Antigone, defied the order and was caught. Here Stillman shows Antigone (centre) attending to the burial of her brother, her companion fearfully trying to draw her away. They are greeted by carrion crows, and at the far right is the headstone of a grave. It’s possible that Marie painted this in late 1884, as a response to her own sister’s death.

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927), Love’s Messenger (1885), watercolor, tempera and gold paint on paper mounted on wood, 81.3 × 66 cm, Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, DE. Wikimedia Commons.

Love’s Messenger (1885) is probably the finest of her single-figure paintings, and was her most successful ‘problem picture’. The woman stands by her embroidery at an outside window. On her right hand is a messenger dove/pigeon, to which a letter is attached. She clutches that letter to her breast with her left hand, implying that its contents relate to matters of the heart. The dove is being fed corn, which could either be its reward for having reached its destination (thus the woman is the recipient of the message), or preparation for its departure (she is the sender).

On balance, the presence of corn on the windowsill implies that it is more likely that the dove has just arrived, and the woman is the recipient. These clues are accompanied by alternative interpretations of the other objects and symbols, such as the embroidery.

Despite being exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1885, and elsewhere, this painting didn’t sell until after Marie had reworked the background in the 1890s. In 1901, it was snapped up by a US collector, and has been in the US ever since.

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927), Love’s Messenger (detail) (1885), watercolor, tempera and gold paint on paper mounted on wood, 81.3 × 66 cm, Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, DE. Wikimedia Commons.

A detail view of Love’s Messenger shows how her watercolour technique results in a facture more closely resembling that of oils, although this painting is an extreme example with its use of tempera too. This was accomplished by using transparent watercolours more like oil glazes, and gouache (opaque watercolour) for details. Although unusual, I don’t believe that this is as unique as some have claimed.


Delaware Art Museum, in Wilmington, Delaware, has one of the best public collections of Marie Spartali Stillman’s paintings. This compares, for example, with London’s Tate Gallery, which has none at all.


Frederick MS & Marsh J (2015) Poetry in Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelite Art of Marie Spartali Stillman, Delaware Art Museum. ISBN 978 0 996 06761 4. Astonishingly, few other books on the Pre-Raphaelites even mention her, and if they do it is as a model and member of the circle.