Last autumn in Delaware an exhibition of Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927) was put on: entitled Poetry in Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelite Art of Marie Spartali Stillman the show was co-curated by Margaretta Frederick, Chief Curator and Annette Woolard-Provine Curator of the Delaware Art Museum’s Bancroft Collection of Pre-Raphaelite Art, and Pre-Raphaelite scholar Jan Marsh who both contribute to the luscious catalogue. The Delaware Art Museum was the only US venue for this exhibition and it now hangs until June 2016 on the walls of the Watts Gallery albeit in a reduced format.
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.”
In the five decades of her career Stillman is thought to have produced approximately one hundred and fifty paintings, but sadly most of these remain in private collections. The Bancroft Collection of Pre-Raphaelite Art in Delaware is the largest of its kind outside Britain and they own eight Stillman works – the most in any public collection. Despite the industrialist Samuel Bancroft’s holdings forming the basis of the Pre-Raphaelite collection and his being a patron of Stillman, American audiences seem less aware of Stilllman’s contributions to Pre-Raphaelitism than British audiences. The Delaware exhibition showcased approximately fifty works by the artist which have been loaned from public and private collections in the States, Britain and Canada, as already mentioned there are fewer on display in Britain but both are remarkable in that many of the works have not been exhibited since Stillman’s death in 1927.
So who is Stillman and why is she important? What do we know about her and where does she fit into our more familiar knowledge of Pre-Raphaelite art?
We know there are a number of professional female artists working in the Pre-Raphaelite circle and in their wake. Stillman worked with the Pre-Raphaelites and was one of their favourite models (Swinburne was particularly flattering about Stillman’s beauty, proclaiming she was “so beautiful that I want to sit down and cry”), and she also worked in their style creating a softer, more lilac Pre-Raphaelitism.
William Michael Rossetti also described her in generous terms: ‘Marie Spartali was probably the most gifted intellectually. Of an ancient and noble race, austere, virtuous and fearless, she was not lacking in a caustic wit and a sharp tongue.’
In 1844, Stillman was born into a wealthy Greek family in London. As a young woman her beauty and intelligence made her, along with her cousins Maria Zambaco and Aglaia Coronio, collectively and admiringly known as ‘the Three Graces’. This combination of beauty and intelligence made them, particularly Stillman, understanding models of the type the Pre-Raphaelites sought and it was through her reputation, social standing and contacts within society that Stillman modelled for Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Spencer Stanhope and Julia Margaret Cameron.
This interest or willingness to model belied an interest in being an artist and in 1864 / 1865 she began formal lessons under the tutelage of Ford Madox Brown. Brown’s Portrait of Maria Spartali Stillman at her Easel (1869) was included in the Delaware exhibition but sadly not in the Watts. However there are plenty of other images of Stillman, e.g. the Watts Portrait of Marie Spartali Stillman (late 1860s, Private Collection) and four by Julia Margaret Cameron including the enigmatic Memory (Mother of the Muses) (1868, Private Collection). The most exquisite image of Stillman is her own Self Portrait (also called On a Balcony) (1874, Robert and Ann Wiggins Collection). Although the Self Portrait was not very well received critically in its day, its colouring and Italianate composition make it a wonderful contribution to the exhibition.
Stillman appears to have had both grace, wealth, talent and intelligence, and yet despite this winning combination her name remains distant. As Frederick puts it “Marie Spartali Stillman has received little recognition within the history of art for a number of reasons, including persistent attitudes towards women artists during that time; her own self-effacing personality; and the fact that the bulk of her work resides in private collections.” This territorial attitude over the public accessing her work is damaging to her reputation and assessment and it is this which Poetry in Beauty seeks to overturn. As Marsh says “Everything conspired against her, marriage, children, prejudices’ and it seems we perpetuate this with our continued reluctance to give prominence to Stillman as we should.
You would be right to reflect whether this lack of reputation is just, after all Giorgione’s reputation is masterly despite art historians being unable to agree on attributions, so why are we so tentative with Stillman when we are not having to negotiating year of ambiguity and centuries of lost history. We know Stillman’s works, we have the definitive articles, and we know where some of the paintings reside, and we can discuss and analyse many of the themes she created. Perhaps our reluctance is a quality attack then? No, it appears instead to be a reluctance to rewrite the history of Pre-Raphaelitism to include women. In the popular myths of the time, women were models, lovers, and wives but not accomplished artists themselves. Thwarted artists maybe, but not independent Anguissola styled artists.
Stillman’s style reflects her Pre-Raphaelite observations and associations (I hesitate to use the word ‘training’ as some critics have done: do we consider Rossetti as being trained in Pre-Raphaelitism because he was a pupil of Brown? No, we consider him an avant-garde genius). So let us consider why Stillman is worthy of this solo exhibition and why her art is valid and equal in the landscape of Pre-Raphaelite scholarship and curatorial practice.
One major difference and importance in Stillman’s creations is her personal experience of the world. I am not referring to emotional or personal experience as in love lost etc. but as in travelling, looking and seeing. Unlike Rossetti, who never travelled to Italy, Stillman spent five years living and painting there. One only has to look at the details and subjects of her landscapes to identify Italian influences, not literary or imagined ones as per Rossetti, but ones such as Spencer Stanhope incorporated. Real ones, drawn from personal knowledge and personal experience of the light, colour and architecture of Italy. Cloister Lilies (1891, Ashmolean) shows this understanding through the soft warm light of southern Europe, the soft hue of reddish lilac and the tinted gold of the Italian buildings in the background which replace the grey of northern Europe.
Stillman’s understanding of different communities was perhaps no surprise when she lived in Britain, Italy and America. She was an educated and well-travelled woman who engaged an international audience. In 1871, much to her parents’ disappointment, Stillman married the American journalist and painter William Stillman. On their arrival to the states, Stillman’s work received a warm critical reception. Ever astute, Stillman developed an international market for her work and continued to exhibit throughout her life in both Britain and the States. She exhibited in London, Birmingham, and Manchester, as well as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Despite this cross-cultural reception during her lifetime, Stillman’s place within late nineteenth century American Aestheticism is unrecognised and although British audiences are more cognisant of her work, there is much scholarship to be done for her to be freely ranked alongside other (male) artists of her time. The same could be said for Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale et al but critically the Watts Gallery is conscious of this and scholars such as Marsh and Pamela Gerrish Nunn are seemingly keen to organise these small scale intimate one (wo)man shows. It is too convenient to rank Stillman’s self-effacing tone as being responsible for this lack of reputation so we should look to ourselves.
Let us turn to one of the works in the Watts show Cloister Lilies. This is a later work and has been described by The News Journal as ‘a sensually-painted, buxom woman holds a cluster of lilies, a symbol of purity. Her arm rests on an illuminated book, a rosary draped around her wrist. The scene is suggestive of a convent, yet the painting was exhibited with a passage from the hedonistic Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam poems’. The tone of this analysis is rather transatlantic in its brusque and dismissive terms and it seems not to really engage with the subtlety of the work at all. Is this a reflection upon the thwarted critical approach of American audiences to Stillman’s work, or is this typical of a broader reluctance?
The News Journal seems to imply there is an undercurrent (perhaps not so under) of sexuality (although it uses the term sensuality, it ramps that up through inclusion of the word ‘buxom for example). The News Journal almost implies that we are not to be taken in by this pure woman for she is buxom and suggestive, she is more aware than we realise for she reads the heady wine soaked text of Khayyam. But there is a disjunct, there is sensuality, but this is not a wine soaked rendering of Huysmans decadence, it is a gentle nod toward the senses. It is subtle, respectful, and intellectual. Have you read Khayyam’s poetry? It is lyrical, soft, embracing and aesthetic. Its colours and rhythms wash over one and one indulges in wine as one philosophises about the world.
The woman is cloistered, she is embowered and locked up somehow. Her gaze falls from us and she remains unreachable, locked within a tight parapet of aesthetics, a world of poetry that we cannot intrude upon, only admire. We are not to admire this woman (girl?) as a sexual being (she is not some sort of bucolic buxom Hardyian wench) but as a Marianesque pure being.
She may well day dream about the aesthetic and sensual aspects of the world, but why should this not be thought of in a St. Teresa of Avila way? After all, she has the rosary wrapped around her arm and her gaze is distant, not coquettish or odalisque. She is meditative, not seductive.
And yet, she is not a nun, despite the lilies, rosary and book (which at first glance appears to be an illuminated manuscript). She may well be Beauty herself, or Youth. The accompanying Khayyaam words read:
Alas, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!
That Youth’s sweet-scented Manuscript should close!
The Nightingale that in the Branches sang
Ah, whence, and whither flown again, who knows!
So perhaps this is a lamentation. A woman’s mourning over her own past loves and losses, of her youth now past. At this time Stillman was 47, and married with children so perhaps this is a record of what all women come to know as they watch their daughters grow and replace what they were once within the world. Women keenly know the cycle of youth in a way that Men do not.
But let us not lose sight of these religious references, they may bow and bend with warm Venetian air, but they are still part of Stillman’s layering. The Italian styling is evident from the Venetian parapet, the Titianesque billowing gown and the face which is directly Botticellian in its imaging. The religiosity is less immediate, the cloister can only be half-glimpsed but it is there, complete with well. It is feasible that the portico may reference the Chiostrino dei Voti in the Santissima Annunziata in Florence, which of course would make sense not only because of Stillman’s life in Italy but because the theme of the Annunciation was of particular interest to the Pre-Raphaelites. Here then, the angelic unveiling of new life is still present. The message is muted and reconfigured but divine love and sensual love are merged together to reimagine the new generation.
Stillman’s most famous work is Love’s Messenger (1885, Delaware), a beautiful watercolour featuring a solitary female figure holding a love letter in her left hand, whilst holding it toward her chest. The dove, the messenger, feeds from her right hand.
Should we consider this a sensual painting or a sexual one? It seems at odds to do so: look again at this work and then look back at Cloister Lilies. These two woman are humble, pious, oblivious and unaware. They take no part in us viewing them, they are not being painted for our delectation. Stillman is not creating Woman as Body, Woman as Supplicant.
In some ways we could consider her a de-sensualised Lady of Shalott. She concentrates upon her sewing but she does so with the Christian iconography keeping her in place. There are mixed or ambiguous symbols though, for we have a chained dove and the angel is blindfolded (or is it Cupid? Or are they in fact one and the same?) Is the temptation of love so great that this woman must chain herself to devotion and blind herself to Love? Or is it that Love blinds itself to her because of her devotion?
Love’s messenger is pure, not sexual, it is sacred not debauched. The open window implies a faith, a chance to grow, and the dove recalls the flight of the dove from the ark, and the return with the olive branch. In this instance, Love is returned, through the open window, Love enters this woman’s hand despite her previous anxieties. She opens her hand and feeds the spirit of Love, and he eats willingly from it. Perhaps we should read the blindfolded angel / cupid as a juxtaposition to the chained Dove? The Dove, despite being chained to the letter, in his angelic role as messenger, is able to move. The implication of the picture’s title suggests he travels as he delivers, and her fear is no doubt recorded upon what it is that she creates before her (the embroidery) but whilst she is blind, the Dove is not. He delivers Love. He is Love.
This gentle tension is inevitably in any dramatic composition and Love is, after all, the most dramatic of human emotions. As collector and critic James Jackson Jarves says Stillman’s works are ‘romances in colour’. The letter is not desperately clasped, it is not urgently being read, as a lover would do. It is held, tightly but mindfully, there is no amour fou in this painting. The Love being experienced is calm, meditative, and trusting. There is no sense of panic or tragedy awaiting the woman, even the (van Eyckian) window remaining opened suggests hope, potential, and a future.
Kelmscott Manor: Feeding Doves in the Kitchen Yard (1904, Kelmscott Manor) is another work featuring doves and yet it is modelled in an entirely different manner, lending credence to the reading of Cloister Liles as being more virginal than venal. Feeding Doves in the Kitchen Yard functions differently, presenting a more relaxed pastoral version of Woman than Cloister Lilies. Stillman’s figures in this scene are ‘real’ not mythologised or unreachable. Stillman was a visitor amongst friends at the wonderful Kelmscott Manor and this small detailed watercolour is evidence, not just of her skill but of a life and relationships that existed out of sight, but not out of place. Stillman’s relaxed work is testament to these close friendships and as such the work is not allegorical, mythological nor sacred despite containing a dove, instead the painting is rural, harmonious and intimate, just as Kelmscott was intended to be.
If we pause to consider the title of the exhibition, Poetry in Beauty, we are reminded of the readings the curators have made about Stillman’s works. Beauty, she certainly was that and she painted it: Poetry, she seems to embrace and combine her painterly Poetry with Beauty. The results are a poetic aesthetic, a kind of distant Romantic inheritance but one that veers between Britain, America, and Italy, between Venetian Masters, Pre-Raphaelitism and Aestheticism.
Capturing the tone of poetry in the world appealed to Stillman and although The Lake of Nemi (1899, Stillman Family) was not in the Watts show but was in Delaware, it is worth mentioning as it is illustrative of her talent in presenting this. One only has to look at Stillman’s Monte Luce from Perugia at Sunset (1893, Private Collection) which is in the exhibition) to find another example of this ability. The colours are still warm and have a certain softness born through her use of watercolour and gouache. The landscapes gentility recalls that of the Botticellian face in Cloister Lilies and we begin to wonder whether the body of the woman is also the body of the land.
Collector and critic James Jackson Jarves describes Stillman as rejoicing in ‘nature’s deepest greens, ethereal blues of perfect skies and unbroken sunshine, bright flowers of paradise hues.’ Her works have an evanescence brought about through her own particular style but also through her medium of chose. Like Burne-Jones her watercolours give a suggestion of being oils because of her use of opaque pigments but, like him, it is through a skill of working with opaque pigments and her understanding of surface and application that renders the colour and the outline a softened form of Italianate art. Her work certainly compliments that of Burne-Jones’ later output.
Morrisian patterns and Rossetian motifs also appear in her work, not as deliberate pastiche or unimaginative copy, but as evidence of her association with them and of her time spent at Kelmscott. A Crown of Wild Flowers (1882, Stillman Family) depicts willow leaves like Morris’ famous pattern and Rossetti’s Water Willow (1871, Delaware). This painting has as much of the Cotswolds in it as it does Italian landscape. One only has to return to Botticelli and his Primavera (1478, Uffizi) to find another example of Stillman’s successful cross-cultural interpretations. It is a shame that Stillman’s Blossom (1882, Sarah Colegrave Gallery) was not included as this captures something quintessentially Pre-Raphaelite and is very much a representation of Land as Woman.
Youth and Beauty are everywhere in Stillman’s output, but so is patterning and naturalistic observation. It is not Ruskinian because it is too feminine and not at all didactic or judgemental. You are allowed to observe the beautiful flora and fauna and to disappear inside the paintings. The windows are often open, the backgrounds inviting and the figures mysteriously wait, looking, they are in every sense ladies-in-waiting. We have waited for them and now we are able to join them in Poetry in Beauty.
This show may be small but Stillman deserves some intimacy and some of our time. Marsh and Frederick have chosen the paintings well, after all it cannot have been easy sourcing them. Whilst there are some it would have been nice to have had access to, we cannot fault their efforts in putting together this niche but timely exhibition which you can visit until the 5th June. I recommend you do so, for who knows when there will be so many of Stillman’s works in one room again. Such exhibitions inevitably put the price of the paintings up though so this mutually beneficial display (for gallery, collector and viewer) may see Stillman appear more and more on the exhibition scene. Who knows which female artist the Watts Gallery will turn their attention to next, perhaps Annie Swynnerton?
The only downside to these female artist shows is that we are still preventing their acceptance, we are still stopping them being viewed wholeheartedly as part of the art scene they lived and worked in. Why is Spartali not included in the Botticelli Reimagined show for example? Why do we continue to make these divides between artists and female (women) artists? Why not just artists? Stillman definitely was one, you only have to marvel at works such as The Good Monk of Soffiano to conclusively know that.