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

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