Marie Spartali was born in Middlesex in 1843, daughter of Michael Spartali, import-export merchant and sometime Greek consul in London, and by birth and acquaintance like Maria Zambaco (mistress of Edward Burne-Jones) a member of the cultured Greek community in London whose doyen was Constantine Ionides. From 1864-70 she trained under Ford Madox Brown, alongside his daughters Catherine and Lucy.
She was a noted 'stunner' (the Pre-Raphaelite slang for a good-looking woman) and sat for Rossetti and Burne-Jones as well as the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. In 1871 she married against her family's wish the American journalist and amateur artist W.J. Stillman; they had three children, one of whom died in infancy. Owing to her husband's work as a newspaper correspondent the family settled in Florence in 1878, and then Rome until 1898. Despite prolonged residences abroad, Spartali became a regular contributor to Grosvenor Gallery from 1877 until 1887, and its sucessor - the New Gallery - as well as at various venues in eastern USA.
Her sustained output proves her professionalism, but little of her work seems to have sold. Her favoured subjects were literary-historical figure groups and decorative female heads preferred by patrons; landsapes and flower pieces are equally representative though less distinctive. Many of her works draw on Italian literary themes, especially Dante and Boccaccio as well as depicting Italian landscape.
Her daughter Euphrosyne (Effie) became an artist, as did her step-daughter Lisa Stillman; her son Michael was an architect and settled in America, where retrospective shows were held in 1908 and 1982. She died in Britain in 1927.
The following obituary appeared in The London Times on 8th March 1927:
"Mrs. Stillman (Obituary)."
At her death in her eighty-fourth year, Marie Spartali Stillman was the last of the small circle of women who contributed significantly to the Pre-Raphaelite movement. The daughter of wealthy and educated Anglo-Greek parents, she married W. J. Stillman, a widower with three children. They had three more children together, and while her parental, wifely, and domestic duties did not allow her to pursue her own art with the concentration it deserved, she was an important friend and colleague in the studios and households of Burne-Jones, Morris, Rossetti and others. Her legendary beauty is imperfectly preserved in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's paintings; photographs do not do her justice, either. Her intelligence, charm, sense of humour, and spirit were valued by the many people whose lives she touched.
'Portrait of Mrs. Stillman (Marie Spartali Stillman)' by Dante Gabriel Rossetti