The sitter appears to be the artist herself, or possibly her younger sister, Christina. The girls were the daughters of Michael Spartali, a wealthy cotton merchant who acted as Greek consul general in London from 1866 and the family belonged to the large Anglo-Greek community that plays such a prominent part in the annals of Victorian art. Marie and Christina were distantly related both to the Ionides family, celebrated as patrons of Watts, Rossetti, Legros, Whistler and others, and to Maria Zambaco, who conducted a tempestuous affair with Burne-Jones. Like Maria, they were renowned for their beauty and much sought after as models. Christina, who was later unhappily married to a Belgian count, Edouard Cahen d'Anvers, and died before she was forty in 1884, sat to Whistler for La Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine (1864-5; Freer Gallery, Washington, DC), and Marie often posed for Rossetti, Burne-Jones, the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, and others.
As well as being a source of inspiration, Marie herself was a talented artist. Devoted to drawing from an early age, she sought instruction from Ford Madox Brown in 1865, and for the next few years she had regular lessons in his studio, working alongside his own three children, Lucy, Catherine and the precocious Oliver, or 'Nolly', who were also embarking on artistic careers. She began to exhibit in 1867, showing three works at the Dudley Gallery in Piccadilly. This had been founded in 1865 and specialised in watercolours by young followers of the Pre-Raphaelites, the coming 'aesthetic' generation.
The present picure shows the influence of Brown, and clearly dates from this early period. While the model has the unmistakable features of Marie herself or her sister, so familiar from other artists' paintings and photographs, the exotic costume suggests that, whoever the sitter, she represents some literary of historical personage. The three pictures that Marie showed at the Dudley in 1867 were of precisely this kind. Our watercolour cannot be The Lady Prays-desire, a subject from Spenser, the composition of which is known, but it could conceivably be one of the others, The Pasha's Widow, or Korinna, the Theban Poetress. Alternatively, and perhaps more plausibly, it could be another picture of this type, Nerea Foscari, that the artist exhibited at the Dudley in 1869. The fact that none of these pictures has a price marked against it in the catalogue might indicate that, in the present case at any rate, she was reluctant to part with a remarkable likeness of her sister or herself.