Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Marie Spartali Flower Painting.

As well as beguiling landscapes, flower painting was another genre that Marie Spartali successfully pursued throughout her career, images which contrast with the delicacy of much of her work by being, in the words of a contemporary, ‘forcible and decisive’ – terms that are seldom applied either to her work or to flower painting in general.

As more or less the lowest genre of art, flower painting has been consistently disregarded and dismissed, except when it appears in seventeenth century Dutch examples, or in works by Van Gogh.  But down the centuries flowers have been among the most popular of subjects and certainly one that appealed to women artists who had less access to travel, to professional models, fully equipped studios or wealthy patrons.

As flowers droop, fade and drop their petals very swiftly, flower painting requires a special set of skills which often go unremarked.  In the 1860s Marie Spartali’s father bought at least one still life from Henri Fantin Latour which is now in the Metropolitan Museum.  Showing lilac blossom and white stocks in a black vase, alongside apples and pears – an unseasonable combination – this rather stiff piece may have inspired Marie when in the mid-1870s she sent several flower pieces for exhibition, in the UK and US.  They included a group of chrysanthemums and hellebore; pairings of roses and lilac, roses and lilies, roses and honeysuckle; and two wild flower subjects, ranunculae (either celandine or buttercups)  and kingcups with blackthorn.

All are apparently untraced;   the flower paintings that are known and thus available for exhibition at Delaware Art Museum seem to date from much later in Marie’s career.  As they remain in family possession they may have been done for her own satisfaction rather than for sale, a guess that is supported by the fact that several are undated.   We have chosen subjects reflecting spring, summer and autumn, and they add a vigorous, colourful dimension to her oeuvre.


Sunday, 2 August 2015

Marie Spartali and the Etruscans

As well as revealing Marie Spartali’s serious and successful exhibiting career in the United States, research for the forthcoming Poetry in Beauty exhibition at Delaware Art Museum (see post for 14 March) has discovered her very fine, atmospheric landscape painting.
Monte Luce from Perugia; private collection 
Hitherto known chiefly for ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ female figures, embowered in flowers and foliage, this aspect of her art, pursued throughout her life, deserves greater scrutiny.  Her earlier landscapes tended to depict scenes and location on the Isle of Wight where the Spartalis had a summer residence (now the barely-altered Rylestone Manor hotel).  Later, after she moved to Florence and then Rome, Italian landscapes naturally featured.  The 1890s saw a strong and striking development linked to Marie’s acquaintance with the group of artists now known as ‘the Etruscans’, which was headed by Giovanni (Nino) Costa and also attracted several British and American painters, including Frederick Leighton and Edith Murch Corbet.   
These artists, many of whom exhibited with Costa’s  In Arte Libertas shows from 1886 to 1900, remain understudied although not wholly neglected.  Rather than the familiar warm sun of  the South, their art  favoured a cooler light, typically that of early spring and early morning, wide horizontal views and gentle, often unremarkable vistas.
Spartali spent at least one memorable season alongside Costa while staying in Perugia, guest of fellow artist Lemmo Rossi-Scotti.  Costa’s habit, which Marie doubtless copied, was to rise and dawn and paint out of doors till mid-morning, resuming in late afternoon until dusk, partly perhaps to escape the mid-day heat but also in pursuit of evanescent atmospheric effects.  There were day-long excursions too, mixed in with appropriate reading from Italian sources, notably those relating to St Francis of Assisi, just 25 km from Perugia.  
Lago di Nemi; private collection
 Back in Rome, Spartali visited the famous Lake Nemi, once sacred to Diana or Artemis, depicting it in soft, pearlescent tones, and also sketched with Costa by the ancient Ponte Nomentana.   These are among the most delicate and evocative of her landscapes.  Other favoured scenes included light-filled woodland in spring, with slender trees vouchsafing a distant view of hill or hill-top town.   Often, but not always, she added figures to the landscape.  These provide scale and human interest, which was maybe chosen to appeal to buyers, for Spartali was always a professional artist with an eye to exhibition and sales.  Several of the scenes suggest however that her main pictorial interest lay in the skies, and the desire to capture their subtle atmospheric effects at different times of day.
Ponte Nomentana; Morgan Library & Museum NY