Alcestis signed, inscribed and dated 'ALCESTIS/C F M + ROMA/1874' on reverse oil on panel 35.5 x 21.5 cm. (14 x 8 1/2 in.)
Provenance: Maas Gallery; Private collection.
An artist with a modest output, Charles Fairfax Murray is as much remembered as a collector and benefactor as a painter. Born in London, Murray was first sponsored by John Ruskin in 1866, who found the young artist work as a studio assistant to Edward Burne-Jones. Murray was soon also assisting William Morris, for whom he painted and illuminated manuscripts, and producing copies for Rosetti. They undertook several visits to Italy in the 1870s, often at Ruskin's expense, where he was commissioned to produce drawings of the frescos in the Sistine Chapel. Making a modest living as a copyist and portrait painter, Murray started to build a collection of Italian masters, and to act as agent for a number of important collectors, including Sir Frederick Burton, Director of the National Gallery.
Returning to London, Murray kept a close friendship with Burne-Jones, Morris and the Arts & Crafts circle, but it was as an art adviser and dealer that he became more influential. Described by Lockett Agnew, for whom he worked, as 'the finest judge of art in the world', Murray helped to bring important works of art to numerous public and private collections in Europe and the USA. Between 1903 and 1907, the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery bought from Murray, at below the market value, over 800 works by Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Madox Brown, Millais and others. He also sold and donated works to the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Dulwich Picture Gallery.
Murray exhibited mostly at the Grosvenor Gallery (1879-1888) and the New Gallery, and showed two works at the Royal Academy, in 1867 and 1871. As well as genre and portrait studies, a number of his exhibited works were inspired by mythological subjects, such as one of his most famous works, The Last Meeting of Helga and Gunnlaug (GG 1887, Delaware Art Museum), taken from an Icelandic legend, translated by William Morris.
In Greek mythology, the Princess Alcestis was seen as a symbol of faithfulness and eternal love. Her story was popularised in Euripides's tragedy 'Alcestis'. The legend has it the god Apollo, banned from Olympus as punishment for killing the Cyclopes, was sent to serve King Admetus as a shepherd. Since Admetus treated Apollo well, the god promised him that when it came time for King Admetus to die, another would be allowed to take his place. Admetus then fell in love with Alcestis, whose father, King Pelias, would only give permission for the pair to marry if Admetus rode a chariot pulled by wild animals. Apollo helped Admetus accomplish this, and Admetus duly claimed his bride. When the time came for Admetus to die, Alcestis agreed to die for him, and was lead to the underworld by Death. However, Heracles followed her, and wrestled with Death, defeating him and allowing the pair to live.
The theme of Alcestis' life was also taken up by Burne-Jones, with a watercolour, Love Bringing Alcestis Back from the Grave, 1863 (Ashmolean, Oxford), and Amor and Alcestis, a stained-glass design for William Morris and Co., 1864, one of seven designs for the 'Legend of Good Women' series, illustrating Chaucer's long poem.