Saturday, 14 March 2015

Marie Spartali 3


We are getting towards the end of writing and editing the catalogue for the forthcoming exhibition opening at Delaware Art Museum in November.    There will be a total of 41 pictures by Marie, plus 8 works showing images of her by other artists, and some decorative items, including embroidered slippers and japanesy designs for room screens.  A good number of the exhibits have not been seen in public for the last century or more; others have been briefly glimpsed since the 1980s in auction rooms and exhibitions, so maybe half altogether have never been available for sustained attention.

One of the most interesting aspects of the search for exhibits and the accompanying research into them is the revelation that Spartali Stillman, hitherto mainly known as a Pre-Raphaelite successor in the British context, is that her career was as much if not more successful in the United States, where she exhibited consistently from the 1870s onwards.  In her catalogue essay Margaretta Frederick explores the artistic networks in New York and New England that Marie was engaged with, initially through her husband but soon very much on her own account.  Henry James was an early admirer of her work, commenting on this picture:

The interest resides partly in the peculiar beauty of the model, and partly, chiefly even, in the remarkable, the almost touching, good faith of the work. The type of face and the treatment suggest the English pre-Raphaelite school, but in so far as the artist is a pre-Raphaelite, she is evidently a sincere and, as we may say, a natural one. There is a vast amount of work in the picture, little of which is easy and some of which is even awkward, but its patience, its refinement, its deep pictorial sentiment, give the whole production a singular intensity. . . . We have seen things of late which had more skill and cleverness, but we have seen nothing which, for reasons of its own, has been more pleasing. There is something in Mrs. Stillman’s picture which makes a certain sort of skill seem rather inexpensive, and renders cleverness vulgar; an aroma, a hidden significance, a loveliness.

A more fulsome American critic was James Jackson Jarves, who was however less specific in his observation and so effusive as to be therefore less effective:

The paintings of Mrs. Stillman are romances in color. Her color sense is so strong that it overpowers every other artistic feature, and she breathes, thinks, and works under its absolute dictation. For it all other points in picture composition are sacrificed or made wholly subservient. It is an effect of temperament, and modified only by a picturesque poetical sentiment which finds its native expression in heart-warm tints and glowing combinations and contrasts. These two forces beget a kind of troubadour and medieval literature in color, pastoral lyrics, and whatever breathes innocence, culture, transparent, stainless emotions and character, happiness unconscious of evil and strong in its might of virtue, rejoicing in nature’s deepest greens, ethereal blues of perfect skies and unbroken sunshine, bright flowers of paradisiac hues, harmonizing with rival colors, of richest, graceful costumes amid limpid fountains and emeraldine waters, their silent music stealing over the senses so irresistibly that we feel Ponce de Leon’s search for the fabled fountain of youth has at last been successful and the spectator has entered the veritable Garden of the Hesperides and become one of the guileless, beautiful dwellers therein. Perpetual youth, beauty, gay romance, and serious passion undefiled become tangible realities to a receptive mind, able to comprehend that art has a loftier mission than to imitate nature, and is never so great as when using its own creative, intuitive powers to make a world of its own, apart from the natural, everyday world.

As often happens with pioneering exhibitions that aim to showcase unfamiliar or overlook artists’ work, re-discoveries keep cropping up.  We think the guillotine is now down on exhibits, but as there remain quite a number of untraced pieces that were shown and even reproduced hen exhibited for example at the Grosvenor Gallery, one can never tell;  if one or other most-sought-after picture were suddenly to surface, I at least would be keen to add it to the exhibition.  It is only by actual sight of Spartali Stillman’s work that its range and qualities can be fairly assessed.

So, if anyone knows of a hitherto unlocated picture, please let us know.

Catalogue details:
Poetry in Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelite Art of Marie Spartali Stillman is made possible, in part, with a gift from the Delaware Art Museum Docents in memory of Evelyn Tietze, a Museum Docent for more than 30 years. Additional support is provided by grants from the Delaware Division of the Arts, a state agency dedicated to nurturing and supporting the arts in Delaware, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts.
Poetry in Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelite Art of Marie Spartali Stillman / edited by Margaretta S. Frederick and Jan Marsh. Published in conjunction with an exhibition held at the Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, Del. Nov. 7, 2015 – Jan. 31, 2016 and at the Watts Gallery, Compton, Guildford, UK (Feb-May 2016).
ISBN 978-0-9960676-1-4
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Stillman, Marie Spartali, 1844-1927
Published by Delaware Art Museum. Distributed by Antique Collectors’ Club.

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