Pre-Raphaelite Sisters: Muses and Models 2

Frederick Sandys (1829–1904), Medea (1866-68), oil on wood panel with gilded background, 61.2 x 45.6 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham England. Wikimedia Commons.

In yesterday’s article about the women who stood not behind the Pre-Raphaelite men, but in front of them as muses and models, I showed some family portraits, and some of the many women who caught Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s fancy. This article rounds that off with some paintings of other well-known and significant influences, appropriately starting with a painting by one of the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood.

Joanna Mary Boyce Wells (1831-1861), Head of Mrs Eaton (1861), oil on paper, laid on linen, 17.1 x 13.7 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

Head of Mrs Eaton from 1861 is a fine oil portrait of a model popular at the time among the Pre-Raphaelites, which Joanna Boyce made in preparation for her major painting A Sibyl. Her model, Fanny Eaton, had been born into slavery in Jamaica, then travelled with her mother to London following abolition in 1837. She later worked in domestic service, and was discovered as a model by Simeon Solomon, so launching her career among the Pre-Raphaelites.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), Pandora (1871), oil on canvas, 131 × 79 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s first painting of Pandora, completed in 1871, was one of his earlier paintings of Jane Morris, the wife of his friend William Morris, and the subject of Rossetti’s late passionate obsession. It was commissioned by John Graham for 750 guineas, who was so pleased with the result that he exhibited it, against Rossetti’s wishes, in Glasgow the following year.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), Pia de’ Tolomei (1868-80), oil on canvas, 104.7 × 120.6 cm, Spencer Museum of Art, Lawrence, KS. Wikimedia Commons.

Jane Morris was again Rossetti’s model for his portrait of Pia de’ Tolomei from 1868-80.

Although Rossetti was notorious for his many relationships, Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, First Baronet of Rottingdean and of the Grange, appeared far more august in photographs. Yet in 1870 he was at the centre of a major scandal and was asked to remove one of his paintings from the exhibition of the Old Water-Colour Society.

Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898), Phyllis and Demophoon (1870), bodycolour and watercolour with gold medium and gum arabic on composite layers of paper on canvas, 47.5 x 93.8 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England. Wikimedia Commons.

The painting in question was Phyllis and Demophoon (1870), a watercolour showing Phyllis embracing her estranged husband from within the structure of an almond tree. Burne-Jones’ exposure of Demophoon’s genitals in the exact centre of the painting was the most obvious reason for the painting’s removal, but behind it was a problem more compelling: both figures were modelled by Maria Zambaco, who had recently been Burne-Jones’ mistress.

Maria Zambaco was one of three cousins from the leading expatriate (if not refugee) Greek families of London; the other two were Aglaia Coronio and Marie Spartali, who later married to become Marie Spartali Stillman.

Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898), The Mill (1882), oil on canvas, 91 × 197 cm, The Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Wikimedia Commons.

All three appear in Burne-Jones’ The Mill (1882). Shown from left to right are Maria Zambaco, Marie Spartali Stillman, and Aglaia Coronio.

Burne-Jones had married Georgiana MacDonald in 1860, and the couple had a son born the following year, and a daughter born in 1866. Maria Cassavetti was ten years younger than Burne-Jones, had married a Dr Zambaco in 1860, and went to live in France, having her own son and daughter by him. When her marriage collapsed, she moved back to London in 1866, and met Burne-Jones when he was commissioned to paint Maria by her mother.

Burne-Jones and Maria Zambaco soon became lovers, a relationship which intensified during 1868, and reached a crisis the following year. Burne-Jones tried to leave his wife and family to live with Zambaco. Maria tried to convince him to join her in a suicide pact, taking an overdose of laudanum by the canal in London’s Little Venice. The police had to be called, and what was already quite a public scandal become the talk of London.

Although Burne-Jones and Zambaco broke up, he continued to use her as a model in his paintings through the 1870s, and in the group often known as the Three Graces in The Mill. After the Old Water-Colour Society had ‘invited’ him to remove his Phyllis and Demophoon, Burne-Jones exhibited little for almost a decade.

Frederick Sandys, now one of the less well-known of the Pre-Raphaelites, seems to have painted in parallel with Rossetti, which eventually led to them falling out.

Frederick Sandys (1829–1904), Medea (1866-68), oil on wood panel with gilded background, 61.2 x 45.6 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham England. Wikimedia Commons.

Sandys’ painting of Medea (1866-68) is possibly his best-known work today. Medea is a leading character in the Greek mythological story of Jason and the Golden Fleece. She is the sorceress, daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis, who falls in love with Jason and strikes a deal that she helps him with magic in return for their marriage. His model here is Keomi Gray, another who appears in paintings by other contemporary artists including Rossetti.

Frederick Sandys (1829–1904), Vivien (1863), oil on canvas, 64 × 52.5 cm, Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester. Wikimedia Commons.

Gray appears again as Vivien (1863), the femme fatale in Tennyson’s cycle of narrative poems Idylls of the King, which re-tells parts of Arthurian legend. Vivien used her looks to seduce Merlin and learn his secrets.

The apple is likely to refer to Eve and original sin, and she wears bright red jewellery which may be a symbol of moral laxity. Sandys had a long affair with Gray which resulted in four children, although his earlier marriage was never dissolved. By the time that he had completed this painting, Sandys was living with an actress, Mary Emma Jones, who bore him at least nine more children.

This period also saw the appearance of professional models, including three of the daughters of a humble family in Portsmouth: the Pettigrews. William Pettigrew, their father, was a cork cutter, possibly working for the large and heavily industrialised Royal Naval Dockyard there. He, his wife, and their thirteen children (or those of them who survived) moved to London in 1884.

John Everett Millais (1829–1896) An Idyll of 1745 (1884), oil, dimensions not known, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Their first major assignment was for John Everett Millais’ An Idyll of 1745 (1884) that same year. Millais revealed his deferential attitude towards them when describing them as “three little gypsies” who “with the characteristic carelessness of their race, they just came when they liked”.

The three are, from the left, Lily, Hetty, and Rose. Millais dressed them as Scottish girls, supposedly meeting two young English soldiers during the Jacobite rising of 1745, when Charles Edward Stuart – Bonnie Prince Charlie – tried to regain the British throne by overthrowing King George II. It culminated in the fierce battle of Culloden on 16 April 1746, at which the rebels were soundly defeated.

The Pettigrew sisters also modelled for many others, including William Holman Hunt, Frederic, Lord Leighton, Edward Poynter, Val Prinsep, and John Singer Sargent. But they don’t ever seem to have attained the same level of influence as the women of the Pre-Raphaelites in their role as muses as well as models.