Oh god­dess, fair of face

Three Greek beau­ties whose looks are re­spon­si­ble for the ar­che­typal ‘mar­ble god­dess’ seen so of­ten in Pre-raphaelite paint­ings grace the Sotheby’s sale­room

Country Life Every Week - - Art Market -

In some ways, there was only one Pre-raphaelite ‘Stun­ner’. Es­pe­cially for Dante Gabriel Ros­setti, the three Greek beau­ties, Marie Spar­tali and the cousins Maria Zam­baco and Aglaia Coro­nio, and, most es­sen­tially, Lizzie Sid­dal and Jane Mor­ris all do­nated fea­tures to the com­pos­ite archetype. The tawny hair came from Sid­dal, Spar­tali and (some­times) Zam­baco, the col­umn neck, jaw­line and Cupid lips from Mor­ris. Ac­cord­ing to Gra­ham Robert­son, Spar­tali also con­trib­uted ‘a wist­ful ten­der­ness of poise, a mys­tery of shad­owed eyes that gave life to what might have been a mar­ble god­dess’. She was, he wrote, ‘so to speak, Mrs Mor­ris for begin­ners’.

She was the daugh­ter of a mer­chant who be­came Greek con­sul- gen­eral in London and was in­tro­duced to the Pre-raphaelite cir­cle by the pa­tron Con­stan­tine Ionides, brother of Aglaia. She was prob­a­bly the best painter among the Pre-raphaelite women, as well as be­ing a favourite model and close friend of Ros­setti. She was not a mis­tress and may well have met her fu­ture hus­band, the Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist Wil­liam Still­man, when they were both mod­el­ling for Ros­setti.

It was in­ter­est­ing when view­ing Sotheby’s July Vic­to­rian paint­ings sale to be able to com­pare Marie Spar­tali as trans­fig­ured by Ros­setti and as she saw her­self. Ros­setti’s 18¾in by 13in coloured-chalk draw­ing is a study for his 1878 A Vi­sion of Fi­ammetta, Boc­cac­cio’s muse, whom Ros­setti pre­sented as a stat­uesque vi­sion of love.

In a poem that ac­com­pa­nied the paint­ing, he wrote that Fi­ammetta:

‘with re­as­sur­ing eyes most fair,

A presage and a prom­ise stands; as ’twere

In the draw­ing, the eyes are cer­tainly re­as­sur­ing and most fair and it can have been no real sur­prise that it dou­bled its

Fig 1 far left: Red-chalk por­trait of Maria Zam­baco by her lover Sir Ed­ward Burne-jones. £112,500. Fig 2 left: Marie Spar­tali in chalk by Ros­setti, a study for his 1878 A Vi­sion of Fi­ammetta. £245,000. Fig 3 be­low: Spar­tali’s wa­ter­colour self-por­trait. £75,000

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