Love and the Maiden by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope (1829-1908). 1877. Tempera, gold paint, gold leaf on canvas. 138 x 202.5 cm. John and Julie Schaeffer Collection, Sydney Australia.
his work is the masterpiece of Stanhope’s mid-career and the most important of the four works that he exhibited at the first Grosvenor Gallery exhibition in 1877. The Grosvenor Gallery was founded by Sir Coutts Lindsay to exhibit the most advanced tendencies in modern British art and immediately became the favourite venue for artists associated with the Aesthetic Movement. Love and the Maiden was painted at the height of Stanhope’s powers as an artist. It is uncertain whether this painting had a literary connection or was purely a work of the artist’s imagination. Melius feels the painting “alludes to the stories of Cupid visiting Psyche, and the Biblical Annunciation” (133). Poë points out: “It is impossible to miss a reference in it to the story of Cupid and Psyche, whilst on the other hand it is just as clearly a sort of secular Annunciation. The very words ‘Love and the Maiden’ describe Gabriel’s coming to Mary as precisely they do Cupid’s finding of Psyche” (41). Certainly Stanhope would have been very familiar with the story of Cupid and Psyche from his friends William Morris’s poem on this subject for The Earthly Paradise and Edward Burne-Jones’s many paintings based on it. Stanhope himself did a number of paintings based on this myth including The Labours of Psyche shown at the Dudley Gallery in 1873, Cupid and Psyche exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1878, and Charon and Psyche exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1883. There is no episode in the story of Cupid and Psyche, however, which directly corresponds to the subject portrayed in Love and the Maiden.
The painting features a startled beautiful young woman dressed in a blue tunic over a pink shift with a white blouse underneath. This colour combination is similar to that traditionally associated with the Virgin Mary of a red tunic and blue mantle. The maiden is reclining on the grass under an olive tree with clumps of daisies in the foreground. She has been approached by the youthful winged figure of Love wearing a rose-patterned orange skirt and pushing a branch of pink oleander blossoms towards her with his left hand. In his right hand he carries his bow. In the backgound a male youth and three maidens are dancing. This painting has obviously been influenced by works by Botticelli. The pose of the maiden recalls that of Venus in Venus and Mars that the National Gallery had acquired in 1874. The poses of the female figures dancing in the background are similar to those of the Three Graces in the left foreground in Primavera at the Uffizi Gallery. The flower-strewn foreground and the screen of cypress trees in the background seem to be suggested by similar motifs in Primavera. The general relationship between the figures of the Maiden and of Love echoes that of the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin in Botticelli’s The Annunciation, also in the Uffizi. Technical analysis has suggested that Stanhope started the painting in Italy and completed it in London. He reworked the composition extensively, canceling passages with opaque white, over which he then subsequently painted in transparent tones in order to preserve the sense of luminosity. It is unknown who the models were for the Maiden or for Love.
Left: Sandro Botticelli. Primavera[Spring] . c.1480. Tempera grassa on wood, 811/2 x 1255/8 inches (207 x 319 cm). Collection of Uffizi Gallery, Florence, inventory no. 1890 n.8360. Right: Sandro Botticelli. Venus and Mars. c.1485. Tempera and oil on poplar, 27 1/4 x 68 Collection of National Gallery, London, inventory no. NG915. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
Despite this work now generally being considered Stanhope’s masterpiece, it received little notice in the contemporary press when it was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery. F. G. Stephens writing in The Athenaeum praised this work for its beauty but criticized it for its affectations of style:
Near the last-named examples hangs Mr. Spencer Stanhope’s fine Love and the Maiden (54), a beautiful design elaborated to the highest degree, but unfortunately marred by affectations of style and execution which are not regarded in the school to which this group of works belong, yet are mere anachronisms in art like that of Mr. Stanhope. The maiden reclines in a landscape; Love, bow in hand, approaches her. Love’s face is full of beauty, but it misses the freakish inspiration of the Italian fifteen-century antitype in art, say of Botticelli; his carnations are, not withstanding their exquisite delicacy and finish, their elaborately fine drawing and charming colour, too pale for an unclothed subject, too thin for art which developed in Titian’s and Giorgione’s hands, to say nothing of Veronese’s and Tintoret’s. The local colour of Love’s wings is delicious, but his action is feeble in design and inexpressive beyond the wont of the school. Of the peculiar affectations and wilfully defective drawing mentioned before, the legs of the maiden and the quaint but nonsensical treatment of the drapery on them are a specimen. How can the painter of Love’s head and body repeat the imperfections and whims of his masters? 
The critic of The Spectator failed to be impressed by any of Stanhope’s contributions to the Grosvenor exhibition: “Of Mr. Spencer Stanhope we cannot speak in praise; his large picture, though showing considerable power of painting, is but a feeble imitation of an old master” (632). Surprisingly the generally conservative The Times gave a more favourable opinion of Stanhope’s submissions and their reliance on Old Master precedents:
In Mr. Stanhope's work as in Mr. Jones's, we see the influence at once of a haunting ideal and forms of old Italian Art - the one reappearing in every face, the other imparting what looks like imitation of early Tuscan or Paduan work, as the case may be. It is hard to see why men should go back to the forms of an immature art, however pure, and manifestly inspired in its own time, for artistic clothing of their inventions; but it is evident that the idiosyncrasies of these men do so impel them, that the result, however remote from common sympathies, has both a decorative beauty and an imaginative delight, which it may require special cultivation to feel, but which really and honestly exists for the initiated. 
The young Oscar Wilde, who reviewed the Grosvenor Gallery exhibition for The Dublin University Magazine while an undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford, gave the most favourable review while not surprisingly excessively praising the beauty of the boy figure of Love:
Next to it is another picture by the same artist, entitled ‘Love and the Maiden’. A girl has fallen asleep in a wood of olive trees, through whose branches and grey leaves we can see the glimmer of sky and sea, with a little seaport town of white houses shining in the sunlight. The olive wood is ever sacred to the Virgin Pallas, the Goddess of Wisdom, and who would have dreamed of finding Eros hidden there? But the girl wakes up, as one wakes from sleep one knows not why, to see the face of the boy Love, who, with outstretched hands, is leaning towards her from the midst of a rhododendron’s crimson blossoms. A rose-garland presses the boy’s brown curls, and he is clad in a tunic of oriental colours, and delicately sensuous are his face and his bared limbs. His boyish beauty if of that particular type unknown in Northern Europe, but common in the Greek islands, where boys can still be found as beautiful as the Charmides of Plato…And so there is extreme loveliness in this figure of Love by Mr. Stanhope, and the whole picture is full of grace, though there is, perhaps, too great a luxuriance of colour, and it would have been a relief had the girl been dressed in pure white. [121-22]
“Art. The Grosvenor Gallery.” The Spectator 50 (May 19, 1877): 631-32.
“The Grosvenor Gallery.” The Times (May 1, 1877): 10.
Melius, Jeremy. “Botticelli, Pre-Raphaelitism, and the Task of the Translator.” In Melissa E. Buron Ed. Truth & Beauty. The Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters. Fine Art Museums of San Francisco, 2018. 127-34.
Poë, Simon. “Mythology and Symbolism in Two Works of Roddam Spencer Stanhope’s Maturity.” The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies New Series 12 (Spring 2003): 35-57.
Stephens, Frederic George. “The Grosvenor Gallery Exhibition.” The Athenaeum No. 2584 (May 5, 1877): 583-84.
Trumble, Angus. Love and Death in the Age of Queen Victoria. Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia. 2002.
Wilde, Oscar. “The Grosvenor Gallery.” The Dublin University Magazine 90 (July 1877): 118-26.
Created 2 November 2004
Last modified 6 May 2022