Important Art by Frederic Leighton
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.
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.
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.