Frederic Leighton - Biography and Legacy
British Painter and Sculptor
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 1939 and 1945 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.