Marie Spartali Stillman was both a gifted artist and a major Pre-Raphaelite muse, who features as a model in many of the movement's most memorable works (fig. 1). Stillman was the youngest daughter of wealthy Greek parents. Her father, Michael Spartali, had made his money as a cotton merchant and served as Greek consul-general in London between 1866 and 1882. The Spartali family were prominent members of the cultured and affluent Anglo-Greek community that came to have an enduring impact on the history of Victorian art; they included Burne-Jones' and Rossetti’s great patron Constantine Ionides and his family, as well as Maria Zambaco, Burne-Jones’ model and mistress, and Aglaia Coronio, who sat for Rossetti. Devoted to drawing from an early age, Stillman became a pupil of Ford Madox Brown in 1865, and for the next few years had regular lessons in his studio, working alongside his own three children, Lucy, Catherine and Oliver. Stillman first exhibited her work at the Dudley Gallery, Piccadilly, in 1867, where she presented three watercolours of female figures. Over her long career, she painted over a hundred and fifty works, exhibiting at the Royal Academy, Grosvenor Gallery, and in Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester.
Stillman painted the present watercolour in 1889, at the height of her career, after having exhibited publicly for over two decades. It was painted in London during one of her most fertile creative periods when she also executed The First Meeting of Petrarch and Laura (private collection), showing the clear influence Italian literary subjects had on her work at this time. She had exhibited two further Dantesque subjects at the New Gallery in 1888, and she showed The Enchanted Garden there the following year. Her fondness for these themes owed much to her friendship with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and also the time she spent living in Italy. In 1886 Stillman had moved from Florence to Rome when her husband became the correspondent there for The Times.
The source material from which Stillman draws is the fifth story on the tenth, and last, day of Boccaccio’s Decameron. In the tale a nobleman in Udine, Messer Ansaldo, is desperately in love with Madonna Dianora, the virtuous wife of another man. In order to put off his persistent attentions, Dianora tells him she will give herself to him if he is able to conjure up in the middle of winter ‘a garden full of green grass and flowers and flowering trees, just as if it were May’, but if he was to fail, he must never trouble her again. Ansaldo remains undeterred and employs a necromancer in order to pull off this impossible feat to win her love.
The Enchanted Garden therefore illustrates the climactic moment of Ansaldo’s success. The arches that bracket the composition on both sides reveal the frozen and snow-capped landscape beyond, yet within Ansaldo’s walls the garden is a riot of blooms, blossom and flowering fruit. Dianora and her women are shown, still clad in their heavy winter cloaks, gazing in wonder at the incredible scene laid before them. Jan Marsh writes that Ansaldo even appears ‘somewhat abashed at the success of his deception’ (M.S. Frederick & J. Marsh, Poetry in Beauty: the Pre-Raphaelite art of Marie Spartali Stillman, Delaware, 2015, p. 104). In contrast to her amazed attendants, Dianora appears melancholy with her eyes downcast, horrified that the promise she made has to be fulfilled. The tale, however, has a happy end, as Dianora confesses to her husband and she is eventually released from her contract by Ansaldo, who appears rather chastened by the whole affair.
Stillman drew inspiration from the Renaissance era both in subject matter and in style, as can be seen in the frieze-like composition so reminiscent of paintings from this period. John Christian remarked that the whole picture is reflective of her experience of living in Italy and that 'the costumes of the page-boys, who might have stepped out of a fresco by Ghirlandaio or Benozzo Gozzoli, are a particularly characteristic touch' (J. Christian, The Last Romantics: Romantic Tradition in British Art - Burne-Jones to Stanley Spencer, London, 1989, p. 87). Whilst Boccaccio’s Decameron wasn’t perceived as being a particularly refined text due to its sexual content, it was tackled by various Pre-Raphaelite artists, and Waterhouse also painted the same subject in The Enchanted Garden (fig. 2, c.1916-1917, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight), some twenty-five years later, shortly before his death.
In 1871 Marie had married the Rossettis' friend William James Stillman, an American diplomat and journalist. The couple lived an itinerant life, spending time in America, Italy and England. Due to their peripatetic existence and William’s unsettled career, Marie was often relied upon to supplement his income through the sales of her work. The present lot was painted when Stillman was in a commercially focused frame of mind, as at this time she was relied upon to support her husband and six children financially. At thirty by forty inches, this picture is one of the most ambitious in her œuvre, and the vivid colouring and lush composition make it one of the most visually arresting. Stillman took it with her when she travelled to the USA in 1900 where it was purchased by T.E. Stillman, a retired railroad lawyer and distant relative of her husband based in Boston. The painting then disappeared until its re-discovery in the 1980s.