Tag Archives: Dante Gabriel Rosetti

Mythological Model – Julia vs. Maria

I wasn’t originally going to do this post, but I’ve had an interesting and enjoyable exchange with a gentleman named Erick Verran. He suggested to me that the model for the Perseus cycle (more specifically The Baleful Head) by Edward Burne-Jones could have been Julia Stephen, another Pre-Raphaelite model, rather than Maria Zambaco. This intrigued me, so I looked up information about Julia and was immediately struck by the similarities between her and the figures in the paintings.

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Furthermore, searches for both women turn up  some of the same paintings. As yet another added item of interest, Julia Stephen was the mother of Virginia Woolf.  So what is the identity of the model in the Perseus cycle? Rather than an art scholar, I’m a biology professor messing around in my spare time, so I was reduced to analyzing profiles of chins and noses, which led me to favor, albeit irresolutely, Maria. This effort was complicated by my inability to find any photographs of Maria Zambaco, and Erick graciously sent me the following from a biography of Edward BurneJones titled The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination (Harvard University Press, 2012) by Fiona MacCarthy.

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Notice the caption (click on the image). It states that these photographs are of a young Maria Zambaco and goes on to imply that her portrayals by Edward Burne-Jones apparently involve a certain amount fanciful embellishment. These certainly seem inconsistent also with appraisals by various of her contemporaries in which she is described as strikingly beautiful. They also appear inconsistent with portraits of her by Dante Gabriel Rosetti (shown in previous posts in this series). By comparison her features seem rounded and less angular. Please don’t judge me as a chauvinist. I understand that standards of beauty are debatable and overly narrow, but the paintings of Maria Zambaco and the aforementioned appraisals seem to fall within stereotypes of beauty for both that era and the present.

Then I was reminded of something I ran across by accident on the internet: photos of Jennifer Connelly at different ages in her career. I selected a couple of examples for this post.

jcy

jco

Notice that her face becomes noticeably leaner as she ages. The difference is even more pronounced in earlier photos. Keep in mind also that the photographs of Maria were from a time period when styles of technique and clothing could obscure the perception of feminine features. Of course, this does not change the fact that the photographs of Julia are rather striking. This leaves me with a problem of identification which is complicated by two factors: the tendency of an artist to make alterations to suit his subject matter and my continued inability to find photographs of Maria from the appropriate time period.

Finally, I did some cross-checking of dates and found that Julia was married in 1867 (one year after Edward and Maria met) and that the Perseus cycle was painted later during a time when Burne-Jones was almost exclusively using Maria as a model. By now, you are probably realizing that this is a rambling approach that proves nothing. In my exchanges with Erick, I had the nagging sense that I was out of my depth. Perhaps out of ignorance, I am still inclined to think that Maria was the model for the Perseus cycle and the series about Saint George and the Dragon (for which Julia is also sometimes credited as Sabra), but this is based on internet searches rather than real scholarship.

Sabra being led to the sacrifice
Sabra being led to the sacrifice
The Baleful Head by Edward Burne-Jones
The Baleful Head by Edward Burne-Jones

I will happily stand corrected if I have run afoul of a more definite identification.

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.

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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.

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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.

zambaco-grave

Mythology on Canvas: Mythological Model (1)

Maria Zambaco is one of the most (perhaps the most) recognizable models of the Pre-Raphaelites. She sat for some portraits by Dante Gabriel Rosetti, one of the founding Pre-Raphaelite painters. An example is shown below.

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Here is another striking image in black and white by the same artist:

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

But her more famous exposure (no pun intended) was in a number of paintings by Edward Burne-Jones. In these, she was portrayed as a number of different characters from mythology in various states of dress. In the following examples, I am reminded of the similarity between the legends of Perseus slaying Cetus and Saint George slaying the dragon.

The Doom Fulfilled by Edward Burne-Jones
The Doom Fulfilled by Edward Burne-Jones
Saint George slaying the dragon after untying Sabra
Saint George slaying the dragon after untying Sabra

Born Maria Terpsithea Cassavetti on April 29, 1843, in London, she was the daughter of a wealthy Anglo-Hellenic merchant. She studied art, including a stint as a student of Auguste Rodin in Paris.  In the 1880s, she even worked as a sculptor, contributing some medallions to the British Museum, some of which are shown below.

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But she is better known for her modeling. With dark red hair and very pale skin, this statuesque woman evidently had a very striking appearance.

Headstrong and independent she married Dr. Demetrius Zambaco and bore him two children, but the marriage was troubled and did not last. She moved back in with her mother in 1866, and it was her mother who commissioned Edward Burne-Jones to paint her as both cupid and psyche during that same year.

Cupid and Psyche by Edward Burne-Jones.
Cupid and Psyche by Edward Burne-Jones.

Although the artist would make several versions of this painting with Maria as a model, the above painting (as nearly as I can tell) is the commission that introduced him to her. And that started all the trouble…

(to be continued)