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Love's Messenger
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Love’s Messenger by Marie Spartali Stillman may look like a woman feeding her leashed pet dove by an open window, but it’s a lot more scandalous than that.

As you may or may not have inferred from the title of the piece, this dove is actually bringing this woman a note from her lover. We can infer this through the interpretation of a number of symbols, something the the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was super into. The first is that, duh, the woman (modeled after Stillman’s daughter Effie) is clutching the note to her chest, which is where her heart is. This is not something one does when they get a note from their mother, or grandmother, or any relative really, so we are forced to believe that this woman has her eye on a hottie. The second is the rose, also next to her chest, which is a symbol of romance and passion. Not exactly rocket science here. The third is the dove itself. Dove’s are generally associated with Venus, the goddess of love and are representative of monogamy as well. And while we’re on the subject of gods and goddesses, you’ll notice that the embroidery that the woman was working on before being interrupted by the dove depicts a blindfolded Cupid. At first, my conclusion was that her lover must be ugly, but it’s more about keeping Cupid, whose arrows tend to be unpredictable, away from their love. Last but not least, is the symbolism of the ivy. Ivy represents fidelity and romantic attachment. So the message that the woman is in love is beaten into us with blatant symbolism. However this work is still classified as a “problem picture” because we have to see all of these symbols and fill in the narrative ourselves… not that that’s particularly difficult.

This painting is the cream of Stillman’s crop, but this did not mean that it was a hot commodity. Stillman was still a woman, let us recall. This painting was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1885, but then sat around for several years. untouched in Effie’s studio. In the 1890s, Stillman redid the background of the work, which was just what it needed to be swooped up by American collector and (not so) coincidentally a big time Delaware Art Museum donor, Samuel Bancroft. If only Stillman could see her works now and know that she hangs (pun intended) with the Pre-Raphaelites just as well as any man could.

Sources

Sources

  1. Green, Dominic. "Pre-Raphaelite Sister: Marie Spartali Stillman." Newcriterion.com. N.p., 2016. Web. 6 Apr. 2018.
  2. ""Love's Messenger" By Marie Spartali Stillman – The Joy Of Museums." The Joy of Museums. Web. 6 Apr. 2018.
  3. "Love's Messenger." Emuseum.delart.org. Web. 6 Apr. 2018.
  4. Melina, Remy. "Why Do Doves Represent Love?." Live Science. N.p., 2011. Web. 6 Apr. 2018.

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Here is what Wikipedia says about Love's Messenger

Love's Messenger is an 1885 watercolor by Marie Spartali Stillman in which a dove has just carried a love letter to a woman standing in front of an open window. She wears a red rose, and has just put down her embroidery of a blind-folded Cupid.

The painting, paper mounted on wood, was purchased in 1901 by Samuel Bancroft and is now in the Delaware Art Museum.

The painting

Love's Messenger reflects the influence of both early Pre-Raphaelite painting and Italian Renaissance painting. The symbols portrayed in the painting, including the dove, rose, ivy, and the blind-folded Cupid "suggest constancy, fidelity, and loveliness in full bloom," but also suggest "beauty on the cusp of decay, sensuality, and the pain Cupid's arrows may inflict." The presence of Venus is shown by the rose and the dove, so that the "scene may offer a contrast between the beauty, love, and abundance of Venus and the sensuality and unpredictability of her son Cupid."

The artist modestly described the painting in 1906:

I wish I could tell you something interesting about my pictures at Mr. Bancroft's [,] they are merely studies of heads done for the pleasure of painting. The effect of a fair head in a certain bull's eye window of a friend's studio where I was working one winter suggested Love's messenger - that is all... [Love's Messenger] is merely a study from a model. My daughter Effie who was then at school [was] not able to sit for me to complete it from her. I painted a landscape from the Villa Borghese Rome as the background when I made several changes in the picture while in Rome.

Critic Jan Marsh suggests that the studio with the bull's eye windows may have been in Edward Burne-Jones's house "The Grange" in Fulham.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about Love's Messenger.