British Painter and Sculptor
Summary of Frederic Leighton
Lord Frederic Leighton was one of the most influential and virtuosic artists of the Victorian era, a brilliant and stylistically adventurous painter of bodies and landscapes, who later in his career launched a new movement in British sculpture. He even earned the nickname Jupiter Olympus - for being both a titan of British art and devotee of Classical Art. Having spent his early adulthood touring Europe, Leighton developed an almost impossibly wide circle of acquaintances spanning the full gamut of contemporary artistic schools, from Academic History Painting to Naturalism, Romanticism, and, most significantly, Aestheticism. His own style gradually developed into a kind of hyper-real Neoclassicism, which prefigured the dreamlike vividness of the Pre-Raphaelites while leaning on the exotic, erotic mythography of Symbolism. His emphasis on beauty - particularly the beauty of the male body - pre-empted the art-for-art's-sake decadence of the fin de siècle, but he remained a bastion of the artistic establishment, ultimately becoming President of the Royal Academy and a hereditary peer. Several of his artworks, including An Athlete Wrestling with a Python and Flaming June, are now recognized as seminal works of their time.
- Frederic Leighton's work impresses with an intensity that seems entirely original. At the same time, it represents an important transitional phase between the Neoclassical and Academic History Painting of the early nineteenth century and those avant-garde movements of the later nineteenth century - Symbolism, Pre-Raphaelitism - which continued to place an emphasis on technical precision. Early works such as Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna (1853-55) predict the surreal vividness of John William Waterhouse or Edward Burne-Jones, but their subject matter remains historical and mythological in a more traditional sense.
- Though primarily remembered as a painter, Leighton is also credited as having inspired the development of New Sculpture, a movement in British sculpture which emerged from the circle around French sculptor Jules Dalou in 1870s London. The style was given vital impetus by the display, in 1877, of Leighton's first sculpture An Athlete Wrestling with a Python, which was seen to bring a new physical dynamism and naturalism to a tired medium.
- Though his own sexuality remains a mystery, Frederic Leighton's work - particularly his late statuary - has been celebrated for its vivid depictions of male beauty. Standing at the forefront of a whole late-nineteenth-century tradition - perhaps most evident in Symbolism and the Decadent Movement - works like The Sluggard (1885) refine the homoerotic energy of Renaissance sculpture, presenting the male body as gentle, seductive, and physically imposing in equal parts.
Progression of Art
Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna is Carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence
In this painting Leighton depicts a group of figures dressed in the style of the early Florentine Renaissance, marching in procession while bearing aloft the thirteenth-century Florentine painter Cimabue's famous Madonna and Child from the 1280s. The figures in the lower half are outlined sharply against a striped wall typical of Florentine architecture, whilst the upper half reveals a distant landscape with foliage and hills. To the left, figures look out from a window - two women, a baby - onto the buoyant procession below, which includes churchmen, musicians, and young girls strewing the path with flowers.
The first of the artist's great processional paintings, the lightness and brightness of this work is what attracted contemporary praise. The white of the clouds and cloth and the light grey of the walls give the scene a pristine radiance, while the dominance of colors on a gradient from pale yellow to deep red adds warmth and a sense of luxury. That effect is increased by the use of shadows, which are few and very small, making the figures and their clothes appear almost three-dimensional in their dreamlike clarity. Leighton also manages to combine epic landscape in the top section with a sense of perspectival shallowness in the lower section, the inclusion of the wall lending the painting a certain early-Renaissance flatness typical of Cimabue's work itself.
Perhaps what is most striking about Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna is the stylized postures and apparent mutual estrangement of the figures who make up the scene. Their gazes are not unified, and instead it seems as if the people depicted are all sharing moments of intimacy with one or two others, oblivious to the rest. This is particularly evident in the group on the left, whose closely entwined bodies seem to lack that impression of linear, right-to-left momentum which gives the rest of the scene its sense of energy. Ranging widely in class, profession, gender, and implied virginity or lustiness, they seem like representatives of multiple different paintings, all pointedly ignoring one another. This creates a palpable sense of tension, so that the impression that eventually emerges from the work is of something between religious epiphany and sensuous cacophony. It was perhaps the cool, statuesque self-possession of Leighton's figures that earned him the criticism of the Pre-Raphaelite artists.
Oil on canvas - The National Gallery, London
Portrait of a Roman Lady (La Nanna)
This portrait is one of several that Leighton created of the Italian model Nanna Risi, mistress and muse of the artist Anselm Feuerbach. She is shown dressed in a variety of flowing fabrics, positioned against a background of blue-grey wallpaper and stuccoed Neoclassical, 'grottoesque' ornamentation.
Exuding allure and power in equal measure, this work twists the conventions of portraiture, shifting its connotations from the familiar to the exotic, even the seductively dangerous. The high neckline, fabrics whose billowing obscure any bodily silhouette, and arms clasped around the body, seem to deny the viewer the kind of erotic frisson which the beauty of her face might imply, and yet Risi's expression makes very clear that this is not done out of defensiveness or weakness, but as a gesture of control. The strong features and almost imperceptible, subtly disdainful smile, combine with the downward angle of the gaze to create a sense of imperiousness. Similarly, the dramatic contrasts of coloring in hair and skin compliment the use of sfumato, or smokiness, in the eyes, which at once beautifies and shrouds them in mystery. With the background so close and spare, there is no escaping the figure, nor losing her in other detail, leaving the viewer to be pierced by her amused and self-assured indifference.
The contemporary reviewer F.G. Stephens wrote in The Athenaeum that the figure of Risi was "worthy of Lucrezia Borgia", the noblewoman and reputed femme fatale of the Florentine Renaissance. Certainly, Leighton's model seems to embody the seductiveness and ruthlessness associated with this historical figure, but the connotations of her expression and appearance also make other nods to Italian art history. The critic Richard Dorment notes that "the sfumato [...] and her thin smile evoke Leonardo, while the lush, scumbled colors and luxurious fabrics recall Veronese". The latter was a comparison that Queen Victoria herself made with reference to Leighton's style while describing her purchase of Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna.
Oil on canvas - The Philadelphia Museum of Art
Icarus and Daedalus
Standing on a marble ledge, Icarus and his father Daedalus are almost nude, save for some artfully billowing drapery. The son reaches up earnestly to grasp the wings fastened on his back, while the older man offers words of advice or warning. Beyond the plinth and statue in the immediate background, the image falls away dramatically, revealing a lush cove, deep blue ocean, and distant mountain range.
In Greek mythology Daedalus is the father of Icarus, who crafts wings for himself and his son to escape their bondage on Knossos. Despite being warned, Icarus flies too close to the sun, melting his wax wings and falling to his death. The artist depicts the moment before the consummation of the tragedy, Icarus's hubristic confidence evident in his single-minded gaze towards the horizon, whilst Daedalus's concern is suggested in his close grasping of his son's body, and of the wing-straps around his chest. The fact that Icarus seems to grasp at air rather than his hand-straps may hint at what is about to unfold.
At the forefront of this image, as with so much of Leighton's work, is the beauty of the youthful male body. Icarus's supple musculature and strong facial profile are picked out against the almost Rococo swirl of black material, offering a prototype of the homoerotic male nude commonplace in Aesthetic and Symbolist art of the late nineteenth century. The fact that the background falls away so drastically from the outcrop induces a sense of vertigo for the viewer, a danger that Icarus's bright beauty initially masks. In this way, just like Icarus, we are invited to focus on the exhilaration of discovery over and above our awareness of danger.
Oil on canvas - The Faringdon Collection, Buscot Park, Oxfordshire
An Athlete Wrestling with a Python
This life-size bronze nude was the first of Leighton's exhibited sculptures, representing a relatively late but hugely influential movement into that medium. His body poised and tensed, the athlete grasps the snake with both hands, one in front and one behind, squeezing its neck just below the head. The python, for its part, wraps itself tightly around the athlete's limbs and torso, and locks eyes with him, mouth open as if hissing at its opponent.
The sheer sense of physical strength, beauty and dynamism that this sculpture exudes was sufficient to launch an entire movement, known as New Sculpture. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, the medium of sculpture was seen as staid and outdated, a view notably expressed by the French art critic and poet Charles Baudelaire. Leighton's piece, in its naturalistic treatment of the human body and revival of classical motifs, was seen as a resurrection of sorts, leading to the development of a new sculptural style responsive to contemporary movements in painting such as Symbolism and Naturalism, and combining exotic and mythological subject-matter with hyper-realistic human forms. The subject of combat allowed Leighton to bring a new sense of motility and energy to the sculptural body, in contrast to the perceived calm repose of classical statuary. There is action and movement for the viewer too, as the sculpture critic David Getsy writes, the twisting of the python around the athlete's leg encouraging the spectator to spin endlessly around the statue, so bringing it to life.
The snake's body also leads the gaze on a spiraling erotic tour of the athlete's physique, grazing and squeezing erogenous zones such as the thigh and genitals. Indeed, the common interpretation of the work as an allegory for the triumph of human willpower over the animalistic lends itself to another queer reading. It has been suggested, that is, that the athlete is wrestling with his sexuality, his handling of the snake a visual allusion to masturbation.
Bronze - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Much like his Athlete Wrestling with a Python, Leighton's second notable sculpture is a life-size male nude cast in bronze. The sluggard, however, is a more delicate and seductive figure than the athlete, standing with the heel of one foot slightly lifted - gesturing towards the contrapposto pose of classical statuary - while the raised arms and backwards tilt of the head suggest a stretch after a long sleep.
The title of the piece might seem to confirm its evocation of the opposite feeling to The Athlete: not vigorous struggle but languorous repose. This might seem to reduce the piece to an emblem of Victorian moral didacticism - stressing the sins of a slovenly life - but the muscles of the body are just as tight and tensed as in Leighton's earlier sculpture. Indeed rather than resting, the figure may be readying himself for action, in the same way that the stretch may signify movement from sleep to waking. With one hand clenched in a fist, showing a bicep, and the other open and brushing the face, there is, in fact, a balance of strength and delicacy in the figure, which at once suggests aggression and a kind of eroticized narcissism.
The critic Stephen Jones describes The Sluggard as "a remarkably experimental work - naturalistic in treatment, and yet still ideal in form". As ever with Leighton, however, this experimental energy is balanced by a gesture towards tradition. The upward movement of the limbs, and the litheness of the body, might hearken back to Giambologna's famous statue of Mercury (c. 1580). Like that work, moreover, The Sluggard has become a symbol of homoeroticism, with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe famously choosing it as a subject-matter for a series of 'nudes'. Indeed, modern viewers may find it hard not to interpret the figure's pose and its implied context as suggesting a sexual relationship between artist and model.
Bronze - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Leighton's great late work Flaming June depicts a woman curled up asleep on a marble bench. Wearing a translucent orange dress, she nestles in layers of red and yellow fabric. Behind her a thin strip of sea is illuminated by the sun, the faint outlines of land visible on the horizon. The setting for the work is unclear, but it may allude to the exotic locations of Leighton's travels during the 1870s-80s, perhaps suggesting a Mediterranean veranda.
There is a tangible intensity to this painting, achieved through color palette and formal composition. The dominance of red, yellow, and golden shades almost seems to set the figure aflame as she lies compacted into an orb-like shape. She therefore stands in for the absent sun, whose presence is implied by the almost-white strip of illuminated sea above her head. Balancing upon the toe of one foot even while she reclines, she exudes the combined qualities of physical tension and relaxation for which Leighton's human figures are renowned.
By reducing the sky and sea to a single strip, topped by a decorative scroll, Leighton renders the work somewhat airless and claustrophobic: the viewer is confronted with the compressed, erotic figure of a woman as bright, powerful, and inescapable as the June sun. Also inescapable is death, which many art historians have argued weighs heavy upon the bodies of Leighton's later works; aside from sleep standing as a metaphor for death, the art historian Kenneth Bendiner has identified the foliage in the top right as the poisonous oleander.
As regards the broader art-historical significance of the work, the flaming-haired figure is typical of the female form in Pre-Raphaelite art, exuding a latent sexual energy.
Oil on canvas - Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico
Biography of Frederic Leighton
Frederic Leighton was born to Dr. Frederic Septimus and Augusta Susan Leighton on the third of December 1830, in the British seaside town of Scarborough. His family was cultured and well-connected; his grandfather, Sir James Leighton, had worked as a physician to the Russian royal family. In 1832, Frederic moved to London along with his parents and his two sisters, Alexandra and Augusta.
Though officially enrolled as a pupil at University College School in Frognal in North London, the young Leighton spent large amounts of time abroad with his family. Between 1839 and 1845 they lived in turn in Paris, Rome, Germany, Switzerland, Florence, Berlin, Munich, and Frankfurt, before returning to Florence. It was during his first visits to Italy that Frederic was introduced to drawing, and by the end of his youthful travels he had enrolled in academies of art in Berlin, Munich, and Florence. The impact of his wandering childhood on his work is evident both in the richness and scope of his artistic imagination and from his language skills - he picked up French, German, and Italian with ease.
Early Training and Work
At around the age of 16, Leighton moved with his family to Frankfurt, where he joined the Städelsches Kunstinstitut, studying under Jakob Becker, an artist associated with the Düsseldorf School of Romantic Landscape Painting. Leighton progressed quickly as an artist, but political turmoil in Germany forced the family to relocate first to Belgium and then to Paris. Again, Leighton showed his precocious ability to forge influential contacts in the art world, befriending the Romantic artist and sculptor Anton Wiertz and the historical painter Louis Gallait, and studying under Alexandre Dupuis. He expanded his network of contacts on his return to London for the Great Exhibition of 1851, introducing himself to the narrative history painters Alfred Elmore, William Powell Frith, and E. M. Ward.
In 1852, the young artist moved again, this time to Rome. Making full use of the cultural and artistic opportunities that the city afforded, he befriended a wide group of painters working across a range of genres, including Johann Friedrich Overbeck, George Heming Mason, and Giovanni Costa. Over the next couple of years Leighton executed his first major work, the wildly popular Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna is Carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence (1853-55). Displayed at the Royal Academy in London in 1855, it was bought on the first day of the exhibition by Queen Victoria, who wrote in her diary: "[t]here was a very big picture by a man called Leighton. It is a beautiful painting, quite reminding one of a Paul Veronese, so bright and full of light. Albert was enchanted with it - so much so that he made me buy it."
Unable, it seems, to remain in one place for too long, at the age of 25 Frederic relocated again, this time to Paris, where he encountered many of the artistic giants of the previous generation, including Jean-August-Dominique Ingres, Eugène Delacroix, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, and Jean-François Millet. Though his acquaintances were typically diverse in their artistic affiliations - from Ingres's Neoclassicism to Millet's Realism - it was around this time that Leighton began to sense the new spirit of Aestheticism then stirring in Parisian artistic circles, which placed emphasis on beauty above all else. He would become increasingly associated with the movement.
In 1856, during a visit to Florence, Leighton met the aristocrat and socialite Henry Greville, thirty years his senior, with whom he began an intense, romantically tinged friendship. Although many adoring letters from the diarist Greville have survived, Leighton was noncommittal in his responses to the older man's affections. Meanwhile, establishing what would become a pattern of royal patronage, he sold one of his portraits of the Italian model Nanna Risi to the Prince of Wales (despite the fact that the series had been promised to another buyer).
In 1859, Leighton settled in London, which would remain his primary place of residence for the rest of his life. It was here, as a member of the so-called Hogarth Club, that he encountered other young artists of his generation, including key members of the Pre-Raphaelite group such as Dante Gabriel Rosetti. Although they appear to have been friends, the relationship between Leighton and this infamously tempestuous group was complex and contradictory. There were as many stylistic similarities between their work as there were mutual points of antagonism: a fact that Leighton himself recognized.
By the age of thirty, Frederic Leighton was one of the best connected and most charismatic members of the European art world. However, in 1860 he was still primarily known for his first major work, the monumental Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna (1853-55). It was in that year that he was commissioned by the poet Robert Browning to design the tomb of his wife, the celebrated English poet Elizabeth Barrett-Browning. It was at this time, therefore, that Leighton began to turn away from the narrative history painting which he had previously favored. He began to consciously prioritize a form of Aestheticism somewhat related to the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, though with a more conspicuous emphasis on classical, especially Hellenistic, motifs. He shared this new focus with other members of what came to be known as the Holland Park Circle, of which George Frederick Watts was perhaps the second most influential member
It was probably the faintly 'continental', Aesthetic strain in Leighton's work that meant he was somewhat snubbed in Academy exhibitions from this point onwards. The evident influence of Hellenic and more generally Mediterranean art and culture on his painting, and its affinity with French Symbolism, did not find an instinctively responsive audience in his native Britain. Although he applied to be an associate of the Royal Academy in 1861, it was three years before his artistic achievements outweighed the institution's political baggage, and he was accepted. It was also during the 1860s that he began his career as a volunteer soldier, joining a division later known as the Artists Rifles. He rose quickly through the ranks of command, eventually retiring in 1883.
During the late 1860s and early 1870s, Leighton travelled to Egypt, the Middle East, and Greece, developing a reputation as a painter of landscapes. It is testament to his artistic versatility that he also excelled at portraiture throughout his career, though he never let it dominate his practice, a temptation many artists yielded to, because of the large financial benefits of such work. In 1877, his first exhibited sculpture, Athlete Wrestling a Python, was completed. The piece was heralded as signaling a rebirth of the sculptural form, prompting a movement known as New Sculpture. Along with other notable artists including Sir Alfred Gilbert and Sir George Frampton, Leighton revitalized Neoclassical sculpture by emphasizing supple bodily movement and a high naturalism, and by incorporating many of the Orientalist and mythological motifs of Symbolism. One year later, he became president of the Royal Academy, and was knighted. In his role as president, he mediated between the competing demands of tradition and the avant-garde, just as his own art had always done.
A skilled businessman, Leighton became wealthy through his art, living comfortably in Kensington during the middle and later years of his life in a house built for him by the architect George Aitchison. It was here that he built up his impressive collection of artworks, and also established a kind of artistic salon, hosting the best and brightest of the contemporary art world, as well as a coterie of attractive young men. Although speculation has abounded as to Leighton's sexuality, he was strikingly - and characteristically - guarded on personal and romantic matters. Unlike other notable members of the European Aesthetic movement such as Oscar Wilde, and later André Gide, Leighton was never the center of sexual scandal. Instead, he became renowned as a campaigner for artistic and architectural conservation both in London and abroad.
Although his mother died in 1850, Leighton's father lived until 1892, just a year before the artist's own death. Leighton himself continued to work until very late in his life, touching more and more in his final years on themes of death and mortality. Influenced in particular by Michelangelo, he believed that Renaissance art had the capacity to express a certain kind of modern darkness which was absent from the work of his revered Greeks. In the 1880s, he became very close with a model of working-class origins, known as Dorothy Dene. Although there were rumors of a love affair between the two, this was never confirmed. Oddly, however, a friend of Leighton's referred to her as the artist's "wife" in various letters. As well as painting Dene, Leighton promoted her career as a serious actress of tragedies. Although his efforts were unsuccessful, it has been speculated that they inspired George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion (1913), in which a professor attempts to teach a working-class woman to blend in with high society. Leighton's position as a sculptor certainly chimes with the classical myth of Pygmalion, in which an artist falls in love with one of his sculptures, though in her book Frederic Leighton: Death, Morality, Resurrection, Keren Rosa Hammerschlag writes of Leighton as "a kind of Anti-Pygmalion, turning the woman he loved into a statue".
In 1894 Leighton's health broke down. After travelling to North Africa to attempt to convalesce, he resigned his position as president of the Royal Academy in June of that year. Having been made a Baronet eight years after his knighthood, he was elevated again in 1896, becoming Baron Leighton, the first painter ever to receive that honor. Only one day later, however, he died of angina, leaving no heirs. His was thus the shortest-lived hereditary peerage in British history. Expressing in equal parts his aesthetic panache and dedication to the world of art, his last recorded words were "my love to the Academy". His coffin was carried at his funeral by members of his former division, the Artists Rifles.
The Legacy of Frederic Leighton
By the end of his life, many art world figures had begun to turn against the style associated with Leighton, sometimes derided as overly theatrical, or emotionally cold. Ironically then, although early in his career he had been considered too closely wedded to continental styles such as Symbolism, and generally too 'experimental', by its close he had been reabsorbed into the broad and nebulous category of 'academic', representing an edifice which younger artists could kick against. Nonetheless, Leighton retained a large number of followers and admirers. Perhaps his greatest direct influence was upon John William Waterhouse, an artist of the generation after Leighton and his Pre-Raphaelite peers, who was therefore removed from the aesthetic squabbles that kept them at arms' length. Waterhouse's work often seems to fuse Leighton's figurative clarity and jewel-like color with the medieval and Arthurian subject-matter preferred by the Pre-Raphaelites.
Across the late twentieth century and early twenty-first, the artist's innovative contribution to historical narrative painting and the Aesthetic movement was increasingly recognized. Much has also been said about the homoeroticism of Leighton's male figures, particularly with reference to his sculpture. One testament to the potency of these figures as expressions of gay identity and desire is Robert Mapplethorpe's decision in the 1980s to create a series of eroticized 'nude' photographs based on images of Leighton's 1885 sculpture The Sluggard.