This striking head study by Rossetti depicts the perennial Pre-Raphaelite beauty, Marie Stillman (1844-1927). Marie 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, 1866-82. The Spartali family were prominent members of the cultured and affluent Anglo-Greek community that came to have an enduring impact in the history of Victorian art, 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 for Rossetti.
It was through her connection to the Ionides family that Marie and her sister Christine were first introduced to the Pre-Raphaelite circle when they attended a garden party at their home in Tulse Hill. Due to the Ionides's reputation as great patrons, many artists were in attendance, and all were reportedly struck by the Greek sisters' beauty. 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, and he wrote of the experience, '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 current study was sold in Rossetti’s studio sale in these Rooms on 12 May 1883, lot 13, as La Bella Mano, Study of a Lady's Head. Whilst Alexa Wilding was the model for the finished oil of La Bella Mano (Delaware Art Museum, Delaware), the present lot could have been a head study in preparation for the finished composition.
Marie was not merely a Pre-Raphaelite muse, but a gifted artist in her own right. Educated at home, she showed an early aptitude for drawing, and became a pupil of Ford Madox Brown in 1864; learning alongside his own three children, Lucy, Catherine and Oliver. Marie 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. In 1871 Marie 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.
This drawing was formerly in the collection of Laurence Stephen Lowry (1887-1976), the celebrated modern British artist, who was a lifelong admirer of Rossetti’s work. A frugal man, Lowry didn’t purchase his first picture by Rossetti until he had retired at age sixty-five, and his collection eventually grew to seventeen works by the Pre-Raphaelite master; describing the artist as being ‘the only man whose work I have ever wanted to possess’ (C. Stewart, LS Lowry: A Victorian Romantic, Salford, 2018, p. 7). Lowry’s love of Rossetti had been nurtured from his childhood spent in Manchester, where many iconic Pre-Raphaelite works were already held in the Manchester City Art Gallery Collection.