Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Bt., ARA (British 1833-1898)
During the course of painting Arthur in Avalon, the artist often referred to other works, of which the present study is a prime example, relating very closely to the head of Danaë in The Tower of Brass. Burne-Jones painted at least three earlier versions of The Tower of Brass but the largest and most notable was completed in 1888 and was shown at the New Gallery that year (Art Gallery and Museum, Kelvingrove). A related pencil study for Danaës head is also in the same collection.
Not all the artists models are easily identifiable but in the case of Danaë it is known that the model was Maria Spartali Stillman (1844-1927). Given the striking similarity between the present head, dating to 1885 and that featured in his 1888 New Gallery piece there is little doubt that this also portrays Maria Spartali Stillman. The daughter of a wealthy Greek merchant, Maria belonged to the same Anglo-Greek community as Burne-Joness mistress Maria Zambaco and the Ionides family of connoisseurs and collectors. Known for her outstanding beauty with a character to match, Maria was also an artist within the Pre-Raphaelite group having studied under Ford Maddox Brown. In addition to Burne-Jones she sat for Rossetti, Whistler and other of the Aesthetics and was also photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron. Although her beauty was difficult to capture, Burne-Joness portrayal of her was regarded as the closest likeness and held in high regard, so that in his review of the New Gallery exhibition in the Athenaeum, F. G. Stephens noted Of the lovely figure of Danaë in The Tower of Brass .it is impossible to speak too highly .Her face is one of the finest and truest of the painters designing, and her attitude is most expressive.
The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon includes two watchers who hold long trumpets, the present study being for the head of the figure standing to the left of the sleeping King. Marias beauty however is not shown to full advantage in the final work since a headdress covers much of her face.