I sometimes wonder how many potentially great women artists have been lost to art history, simply because the training and opportunity to enter into a career as an artist was denied to them by a culture that considered it an “unsuitable” role for women.
Some managed to make their way through the gauntlet and make their mark, however, particularly as society became more affluent towards the end of the 19th Century.
Marie Spartali, later Stillman, was one of the outstanding women artists to come out of the Victorian era, and was a notable painter in the Pre-Raphaelite circle.
Stillman studied with Ford Madox Brown and her work shows his influence as well as that of John Everett Millais, Edward Byrne Jones (particularly in the latter part of her career) and Renaissance painters like Sandro Botticelli.
In addition to being a talented artist, Stillman was physically beautiful in a way particularly in favor with the Pre-Raphaelites (a “stunner”, in their words) and she served as a model for paintings by Brown, Dante Gabriel Rosetti and Byrne Jones., and was the model for Byrne-Jones’ famous painting The Begiuling of Merlin. Stillman also posed for pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cemeron.
I’ve picked out two of Stillman’s paintings to show you here. The image at left, bottom is The Rose From Armida’s Garden; I don’t know where it currently resides.
The image shown at top is Love’s Messenger, perhaps Stillman’s best known work. It is part of the Delaware Art Museum’s wonderful Bancroft Collection of Pre-Raphaelite works and, like the rest of that collection, is on an extended tour of other museums (currently at the Frick Art and Historical Center in Pittsburgh). I’m spoiled, having grown up with easy access to the museum, and I really miss having the Pre-Raphaelites here.
Even among the jewels in the museum’s collection, Love’s Messenger is striking, grabbing your attention from across the room and rewarding you when you approach with wonderful details and a beautiful handling of the paint.
Stillman painted in watercolor, a medium considered “more suitable” for women than oil, and often used opaque watercolor in a detailed manner, imbuing her images with a lustrous texture that makes their surface a visual treat, above and beyond the overall character of the painting. Her subject matter was in keeping with that of the other Pre-Raphaelites and she had a tendency toward a flattened “naive” perspective, as in early Renaissance painting.
I, for one, am glad an artist like Marie Stillman made it through the barriers society put in the way of young women of her time, and was able to train and flower as an artist.