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
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