Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Marie Spartali Stillman - The Childhood of Saint Cecily

Price Realized £59,750

signed with monogram and dated '83' (lower right)
pencil and watercolour with gum arabic, heightened with bodycolour
39¾ x 29 1/8 in. (10.1 x 74 cm.)

London, New Gallery, 1883, no.349.

St Cecilia was a Roman virgin martyr who lived in the 2nd or 3rd century AD. Her relics, which are thought to be genuine, are preserved in the basilica of S. Cecilia in Trastevere, a church of very early foundation. Brought up as a Christian, she took a vow of chastity and, on marrying a Roman nobleman named Valerius, urged him to accept sexual abstinence. He agreed on condition that he was allowed to see her guardian angel, whereupon the angel descended and placed garlands of roses and lilies on their heads. Both Valerius and his brother Tiburtius were baptised as Christians, and in due course they and Cecilia suffered martyrdom for their faith.

Cecilia is famous in Christian iconography as the patron saint of music. Her connection with the art appears to stem from the legend that she rejected the sound of musical instruments that greeted her as she entered the house of her betrothed, having ears only for the heavenly music that required her to remain stainless in body and soul. In art, she usually betrays her patronal role by playing an organ; but she does not disdain other instruments, and the idea of her listening to celestial music is often represented by upturned eyes and angel choirs.
The story had entered the canon of Pre-Raphaelite subject matter when Rossetti illustrated Tennyson's poem 'The Palace of Art' in the famous Moxon edition of the poet's works (1857). His typically idiosyncratic design portrays one of the images in the 'lordly pleasure-house' which the aesthete erects in order to cultivate beauty and isolate himself from the outside world:

Or in a clear-wall'd city on the sea,
Near gilded organ-pipes, her hair
Wound with white roses, slept St Cecily;
An angel look'd at her

From then on the subject was never far from the movement's consciousness. Burne-Jones often represented the Saint in stained glass, notably in a window of 1875 in the Cathedral at Christ Church, Oxford, which not only shows her and her angels in the main lights but incidents from her life in 'predella' panels below. Other exponents of the late Pre-Raphaelite tradition who attempted the theme included J.M. Strudwick, J.W. Waterhouse and E.R. Frampton. Of these, Waterhouse's version is the most ambitious and familiar. Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1895, the picture was sold in these Rooms for a record price in June 2000 and is now in the Lloyd Webber Collection.

Marie Stillman's watercolour was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1883. This radical alternative to the Royal Academy had opened six years earlier, and immediately established itself as a showcase for the Aesthetic movement. Burne-Jones was its undisputed star, and many of his followers and associates were keen supporters. Stillman had exhibited there from the outset, showing the occasional fanciful portrait or Italian landscape, but mainly the subjects from Rossetti's Early Italian Poets (1861) which were her speciality and gained such colour from her current residence in Florence.

The Childhood of St Cecily shows the Saint as a girl, playing a psaltery and listening to heavenly voices as an attendant dresses her hair. A piece of Tuscan countryside fills the background. Stylistically, the picture still owes much to Ford Madox Brown, under whom Stillman had studied for some years from 1864; the drapery is particularly Brunonian in treatment.

But there is a lot of Rossetti's influence here too. Indeed the fact that Rossetti had died the previous year suggests that an element of memorial may be built into the conception. True, the design has nothing in common with the Moxon illustration, but half-length figures of women either dressing their hair or having it attended to by others had been one of the central themes of Rossetti's later work, and Stillman, an acknowledged beauty whom the artist had often used as a model, would have seen numerous examples when she visited his studio. Nor is the motif of hair-dressing essential to the comparison. If we think of a picture such as The Beloved, Rossetti's masterpiece of 1865-6 (Tate Gallery), it is not difficult to see how much Stillman has learnt from her mentor in terms of the relationship of her two figure's heads, their hand movements, and so on. As for the idea of showing the Saint in her childhood, it is tempting to relate this to Rossetti's first completed picture, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin of 1848-9 (Tate Gallery), even though Stillman is unlikely to have known it in the flesh when her own contribution to the genre was conceived. Having been in a private collection almost since its execution, the picture did not appear in public until it was included in the Rossetti memorial exhibition held at the Royal Academy in the winter of 1883, a few months after the Grosvenor Gallery's summer exhibition had closed.

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