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Frederic Leighton

British Painter and Sculptor

Frederic Leighton Photo
Movements and Styles: Aesthetic Art, Neoclassicism

Born: December 3, 1830 - Scarborough, England

Died: January 25, 1896 - London, England

"I do not believe [...] that they who, in our time, have wedded their lives to art have clasped to their breasts a lovely but lifeless corpse."

Lord Frederic Leighton

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. Following a peripatetic childhood, he spent his early adulthood touring Europe, developing 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 si├Ęcle, 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.

Key Ideas

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.
Frederic Leighton Photo

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.

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