Study of Mary Cassavetti (Maria Zambaco)

Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones

(Birmingham, 1833 - London, 1898)
Pencil on paper 32 x 37 cm (12.6 x 14.6 in.) Initialled and dated 'MDCCCLXXI' 1871

This drawing of 1871, described by Professor Martin Postle as ‘among the finest of Mary Zambaco’, is a smouldering psycho-sexual image of the Greek beauty who became Burne-Jones' lover. The febrile drawing of her filigree hair, the delicate shading of her skin, her contorted posture and the compressed format are powerfully expressive of his obsession with her.

Maria Zambaco and her cousins Marie Spartali and Aglaia Coronio - all daughters of wealthy ex-patriate Greeks - were nicknamed ‘The Three Graces’ in London, where they were famed for their looks, wealth, independence of mind and their intelligence. Maria, uninhibited and estranged from her husband (a disreputable Doctor) was, as Fiona MacCarthy puts it, 'a striking figure with “almost phosphorescent” white skin and come-hither glorious red hair’. She was an aspiring artist, trained at the Slade. Burne-Jones gave her lessons in his studio and she sat to him for Cupid in 1866, when her mother commissioned 'Cupid and Psyche' from him. He had 'dispensed with most other models now, in favour of Maria Zambaco’s delicate, distinctly Grecian features, her large expressive eyes, well-sculpted nose and neatly pointed chin’. Her features haunted Burne-Jones’ paintings: 'Pygmalion and the Image' (1875-8), as the statue created to be worshipped by the artist; as his enchantress in the 'The Wine of Circe' (1870); his goddess in 'Venus Concordia' and 'Venus Discordia' (1870-3); and his temptress in 'The Beguiling of Merlin' (1872-7).

Their tumultuous affair was doomed, for, despite Maria’s threats of suicide in 1869 Burne-Jones would not leave his wife for her. There was a public scandal in 1870, when Burne-Jones’ watercolour 'Phyllis and Demophoon' was exhibited at the Old Watercolour Society’s annual exhibition. Both figures, lovers from Ovid’s 'Heroides', were uncompromisingly naked and their features were unmistakably Maria’s. After two weeks of complaints, Burne-Jones removed the picture. Burne-Jones never completely deserted her, perhaps visiting her in Paris and writing to her, and she reportedly rented a studio next to his in the 1880s. Her face continued to haunt his paintings long after their affair had ended.

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The Maas Gallery

"Pre-Raphaelite, Victorian, Romantic and Modern British paintings, drawings and watercolours."

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