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Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927), Madonna Pietra degli Scrovigni, 1884. Watercolor and gouache on paper, 31 × 24 inches. © National Museums Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery. Presented to the Walker Art Gallery on behalf of subscribers by Harold S Rathbone in 1884.  © 2015 Delaware Art Museum

WILMINGTON, DE.- Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927) was one of a small number of professional female artists working in the second half of the 19th century within the British Pre-Raphaelite circle. Poetry in Beauty:The Pre-Raphaelite Art of Marie Spartali Stillman—on view November 7, 2015 – January 31, 2016—is the first retrospective of this artist’s work showcasing her importance within the Victorian artistic avant-garde. Through approximately 54 landscapes, portraits, and subject paintings, the exhibition explores Pre-Raphaelitism, women artists, early Italian poetry, and the Aesthetic period—in Britain and America. This major exhibition features works from public and private collections in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada, many of which have not been on public view since Spartali Stillman’s lifetime. 

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Marie Spartali Stillman (1844 1927), The Pilgrim Folk, 1914. Watercolor and gouache on paper, 22 3/8 x 27 11/16 inches. Delaware Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. S. S. Auchincloss, 1974 © 2015 Delaware Art Museum

Poetry in Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelite Art of Marie Spartali Stillman is co-curated by Margaretta Frederick, Chief Curator and Annette Woolard-Provine Curator of the Delaware Art Museum’s Bancroft Collection of Pre-Raphaelite Art, and Pre-Raphaelite scholar Jan Marsh. The Delaware Art Museum is the only United States venue for this landmark exhibition. It will travel, in reduced format, to the Watts Gallery, Compton, Guildford, England, where it will be on view March 1 – June 5, 2016. 

Born in 1844 in London, Spartali Stillman spent most of her adult life in the United Kingdom and Italy. Her marriage to the American journalist William James Stillman in 1871 provided an opportunity for Marie to meet and develop relationships with a new circle of artists in the United States, and offered new exhibiting opportunities. She developed a successful market for her work on both contintents, exhibiting throughout her life in London, Birmingham, and Manchester, as well as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. While her work within Pre-Raphaelite circles has been recognized in small degree, her presence within the artistic milieu of the American Aesthetic period has gone completely unrecognized. 

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Marie Spartali Stillman (1844 1927), Love's Messenger, 1885. Watercolor, tempera, and gold paint on paper mounted on wood, 32 x 26 inches. Delaware Art Museum, Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Memorial, 1935 © 2015 Delaware Art Museum

“Marie Spartali Stillman has received little recognition within the history of art for a number of reasons, including persistent attitudes towards women artists during that time; her own self-effacing personality; and the fact that the bulk of her work resides in private collections,” explains Frederick. 

Many of Spartali Stillman’s subjects were drawn from the early Italian poetry of Dante, Boccaccio, and others, much of which appeared in translation by one of her Pre-Raphaelite mentors, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Landscapes also featured in her oeuvre include views of Kelmscott Manor, the home of William and Jane Morris; scenes of the Isle of Wight where her family vacationed each summer; and the Italian countryside where she worked with the Etruscan School painter Giovanni Costa. 

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Marie Spartali Stillman (1844 1927), Beatrice, 1896. Watercolor and gouache on paper, 22 11/16 x 17 inches. Delaware Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Walter Reinsel, 1971 © 2015 Delaware Art Museum

Spartali Stillman worked primarily in a mixture of watercolor and gouache, a technique practiced by Edward Burne-Jones and other members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle. The heavy mixture of opaque pigments and additives gives her work the overall quality of an oil painting. This crossing of media boundaries could also be correlated with her own breaking of gender confines as an upper-middle-class woman working as a professional artist during the Victorian period. 

The Pre-Raphaelites rejected the conventions of the Victorian period in England, finding inspiration instead in the art of the Middle Ages—the time “before Raphael” (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino 1483–1520). Spartali Stillman trained with Ford Madox Brown, a mentor to the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. She was also mentored by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones. 

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Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927), Fiammetta Singing, 1879. Watercolor, gouache, and graphite on paper, 29 3/8 × 39 1/2 inches. The Collection of Richard H. Driehaus, Chicago. Photo credit: William H. Bengston, Chicago. © 2015 Delaware Art Museum

The Delaware Art Museum’s Bancroft Collection of Pre-Raphaelite Art is the largest assemblage of its kind outside the United Kingdom. Spartali Stillman’s work is integral to the Museum’s holdings, as Wilmington-native and industrialist Samuel Bancroft, whose collection forms the foundation of the Museum’s British offerings, was a patron of her work. The Delaware Art Museum owns eight works by Spartali Stillman—the largest collection of any public institution.

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Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927, Kelmscott Manor: Feeding Doves in Kitchen Yard, 1904.  Watercolor and gouache on paper, 13 1/2 × 20 1/2 inches. Society of Antiquaries of London (Kelmscott Manor) © 2015 Delaware Art Museum

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Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927), The Lake of Nemi, 1899. Watercolor and gouache on paper, 16 × 22 1/2 inches. Private Collection.  © 2015 Delaware Art Museum

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Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927, Still Life (Spring Flowers and Landscape Painting), not dated.  Watercolor and gouache on paper, 19 5/8 × 13 1/2 inches. Private Collection.  © 2015 Delaware Art Museum