Mythology On Canvas: Mythological Model (5)

Since this post is something of an epitaph for Maria Zambaco, I think it  more appropriate to leave her clothed and to make some attempt at examining her as a real woman rather than any of the mythological figures (save one) for which she was posed. With one exception, I believe that the images of her that I am using this week are study sketches (and one painting) executed by Edward Burne-Jones, the artist  for whose paintings she gathered the most attention and controversy.


I see her life as something of a multiple choice question. Was she:

a) a victim of exploitation?

b) an accomplice in her own exploitation?

c) both of the above?

d) none of the above?

I cannot assign a correct answer to this question with any confidence. In matters of artistic taste, nude portraits are often considered acceptable, but not all people would agree on this. Maria was herself an artist and a fairly accomplished one. She was also headstrong and wealthy, so it is difficult to imagine her being forced into much of anything against her will.  However,  being willing need not be exclusive of being exploited. I would hope that her true personality would be closer to the impressions I gather from the following portrait: intelligence, pensiveness, dignity.

Portrait of a Lady by Dante Gabriel Rosetti
Portrait of a Lady by Dante Gabriel Rosetti

On the one hand, her decisions and strong will would indicate that she was not a victim of exploitation. On the other, certain behaviors and events in her life might be considered symptomatic of someone who was. Her attempt to involve Burne-Jones in a suicide pact after he backed out of a decision to leave his wife does not strike me as the expression of a self-assured and independent spirit. Representations of her body were also displayed very publicly.


I question the assumption that women truly empower themselves within a male-dominated system by taking ownership of sexualized stereotypes and roles assigned to them by that system.

Sabra tied to the pole as the maidens depart
Sabra tied to the pole as the maidens depart

In looking at various aspects of her personality as described by other commentators, I cannot say that I understand who this striking woman truly was. She remains, for me, an enigma. Maria, may you rest in peace.


22 thoughts on “Mythology On Canvas: Mythological Model (5)”

  1. I love this focus on artists models! As an artist I’ve known several life models. They are always some of the most interesting people you could imagine, and I don’t often see much focus on them. It’s almost always about the artist.

    I remember being fascinated with her face when I began drawing as a child, and Edward Burne Jones was always one of my favorite artists. This information about his model is fascinating. I never even knew her name.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. I just kind of stumbled into the Pre-Raphaelites, and I noticed that one face and form kept appearing in his paintings. So I looked it up on-line, and there she was. What a story – I think it would make a compelling biopic if done artistically.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Fascinating topic, and I think once you stumble across this Pre-Raphaelites, you never leave them behind. I must read Fiona Maccarthy’s biographys of Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. “I gather from the following portrait: intelligence, pensiveness, dignity.” Interestingly, I see anger. I don’t know if that’s consistent with other piece in which she appeared, but here, I think there’s a hardness, a dissatisfaction, a kind of “whatever” attitude. I agree with intelligent. Pensive, yes, in the sense that I don’t think she’s willing to show what she’s actually thinking. I guess I see what I termed “hardness” instead of dignity.

    Without knowing any particulars, and judging primarily from that one portrait, I’d vote for C in you poll. For what it’s worth. Which we know is equal to the price of unicorn horns.


    Liked by 1 person

  3. It is hard for me to read much personality or character from nude figures. As I told my granddaughter, “When you are on the beach with a thousand other girls in a string. It is hard to be a standout; you all look alike.” I didn’t tell her, but they all act alike also. I’m not a fan of the beach scene!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Isn’t reading under the surface of things what “mythology” is? Sort of? Like with “metaphor” and “analogy” – reading between lines and under surfaces can illuminate or be a wild stab in the dark with a salad fork. But that’s why salad forks exist right? Lol! Keep up your good work!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. If any artistic effort resonates with me, I like to know what human story lies behind it. By the way, I have been looking for your posts on my reader. Have I missed them recently, or has it been a while since your last post? Take care.


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