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. 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 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.
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.
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.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Frederic Leighton
- The Life, Letters and Work of Frederic LeightonBy Mrs. Russel Barrington
- Addresses Delivered to the Students of the Royal AcademyBy Frederic Leighton
- Frederic Leighton: Antiquity, Renaissance, ModernityOur PickBy Tim Barringer and Elizabeth Prettejohn
- Frederic Leighton 1830-1896By Richard Ormond et al
- Frederic Leighton: Death, Mortality, ResurrectionBy Keren Rosa Hammerschlag
- Dorothy Dene: Lord Leighton's secret lover?By Lucy Davies / The Telegraph / November 19, 2014
- Artist of the Month: May 2015, Sir Frederic Leighton PRABy The RA Collections Team / The RA / May 21, 2015
- Passionate and ravishing': Golden Hours by Frederic, Lord LeightonBy Alastair Sooke and Peter Brown / Christie's / June 30, 2016
- Frederic Leighton's Flaming June: the Mona Lisa of the Southern HemisphereBy Skye Sherwin / The Guardian / December 16, 2016