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 - 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 - 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 - Tate Galleries, London
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 - Tate Galleries, London
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