Marie was the daughter 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 played such a prominent part in the annals of Victorian art. Marie and her sister 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, in the late 1860s. 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 (see lots 26-7 and 34). 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.
Armida was an enchantress in Tasso's epic poem about the Crusaders, Jerusalem Delivered, published in 1581. She used her charms to seduce the Crusaders from their vows and duty. Her palace, surrounded by magnificent pleasure grounds, was so luxurious and splendid that 'the Gardens of Armida' have become a synonym for gorgeous luxury.