Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)
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Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)

Head study of Marie Spartali Stillman (1844-1927) for 'Dante's Dream'

Details
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)
Head study of Marie Spartali Stillman (1844-1927) for 'Dante's Dream'
signed with monogram and dated '1870' (on the reverse, on a folded portion of the sheet)
pencil and coloured chalks on duck-egg blue paper
14 ¼ x 11 5/8 in. (36.2 by 29.5 cm.) (folded); 21 ½ x 24 in. (54 x 61 cm.) (overall sheet size)
Provenance
J. J. Stevenson, a friend of the artist.
Millie Stevenson, and by descent to her nephew
Colonel Roderick Macleod, D.S.O., M.C.; Christie's, London, 15 December 1981, lot 240.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, London, 1 July 2004, lot 22.
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Lot Essay

Marie Spartali was born in London in 1844, the youngest daughter of Euphrosyne and Michael Spartali. Her father was a merchant and later the Greek consul-general to London. Shortly after her birth the family moved to Clapham, and there became part of a group of wealthy and well-connected Greek expatriates which included Burne-Jones and Rossetti’s great patron Constantine Ionides and his family, as well as Maria Zambaco, Burne-Jones’s model and mistress, and Aglaia Coronio, who also sat to Rossetti. Educated at home she showed a talent for drawing and painting, became the pupil of Ford Madox Brown in 1864, and began to exhibit at the Dudley Gallery in 1867. Following the lead of the Pre-Raphaelites, she exhibited predominantly watercolours at the Royal Academy, Grosvenor Gallery, Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester. Marie and her sister Christine were introduced to the Pre-Raphaelite circle at a garden party in the late 1860s, where Thomas Armstrong recalled ‘every one of us burned with a desire to paint them’, and the poet Algernon Swinburne thought that she was ‘so beautiful I feel as if I could sit down and cry’ (T. Armstrong, A Memoir 1832-1911, London, 1912, p. 195).

Marie first sat for Rossetti in 1869 for the series of studies from which the present work is taken. Rossetti wrote, 'I find her head about the most difficult I ever drew. It depends not nearly so much on real form as on subtle charm of life which one cannot re-create.' (A. Rose, Pre-Raphaelite Portraits, London, 1981, p. 106). The three head study drawings he made share a sensitivity and intensity which attests to his struggle. As well as the present sheet, there is one in the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard, and another formerly with Christopher Wood, London. A related portrait head of Marie Stillman, dated 1870, is in the Lloyd Webber collection.

Dante’s Dream on the Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, fig. 1), depicting an episode from the Vito Nuova, is one of the greatest works of the latter part of Rossetti’s career. He had first explored the composition and subject in 1856 in a watercolour now at Tate Britain in which the figure of Beatrice is recognisable as his wife, Elizabeth Siddall. In 1869 William Graham commissioned Rossetti to paint a second version in oil, which bears the date 1871, and is Rossetti’s largest and most ambitious painting. In the later version Jane Morris sat for Beatrice, whilst Marie Spartali is the attendant to the right of the composition. Marie Stillman was perhaps the most conventionally beautiful of Rossetti’s ‘stunners’, and Graham Robertson described her thus: 'I always recommended would-be but wavering worshippers to start with Mrs. Stillman, 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, while study of her trained the eye to understand the more esoteric beauty of Mrs Morris and 'trace in Venus' eyes the gaze of Proserpine.' (G. Robertson, Time Was, London, 1913, p. 95).
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