A stalwart of late Victorian art, Lord Frederic Leighton rose from outsider of the British art scene to one of its most prominent figureheads. He was the first artist to be bestowed with the honour of a baronage and is buried in pride of place in St Paul’s Cathedral.
This success is owed to his lifelong passion for art. Leighton would honour the legacy of previous artists whilst propagating new styles and movements. His impact is indispensable.
Leighton had a privileged, peripatetic upbringing which allowed him to attend numerous art schools across Europe. It also enabled his absorption of the various cultures and art movements occuring within European cities. From his tutor and friend in Germany, Edward von Steinle (1810-1886), Leighton soaked in ideas of spirit and emotion in art. From his academy training, Leighton understood the tenets of classicism, with its focus on the ancient Greeks and Romans.
From the societies of Paris, Leighton became influenced by aestheticism, with its belief in ‘art for art’s sake.’ In Britain, where Leighton would eventually settle in the late 1850s, Leighton became acquainted with the pre-Raphaelites. This loose collective of artists rejected the academy’s classical view of art in favour of a more emotional, rich work interpreting tales of myth and legend and themes such as life and death.
Leighton clearly had a lot of artistic sources to draw inspiration from, and he injected his works with a complex mix of each flavouring to create his own unique blend.
The classical world remains a strong theme throughout his career, but as his work progresses, it falls much more in line with the spirit of the pre-Raphaelites and aestheticism.
Leighton dismisses the structured poses and retention of emotion in classical art in favour of more impassioned pieces imbued with rich colouring and fine detail. His aesthetic paintings of women demurely draped in robes keep the focus clearly on the beauty of the piece through his skilled composition of figure. Faces are contorted in extreme expressions and limbs twisted with tension as he regales the tales of Perseus and Andromeda, Persephone and Hades.
In his masterpiece, ‘Flaming June’ (1895), Leighton combines the aesthetic beauty of the female form with symbolism reckoning with ideas of life and death. A woman sleeps languidly feline-like, draped in a flaming, tangerine robe. It seems to slip like water over her limbs as she slides into sleep, the hazy horizon behind her suggesting the ticking away of time. The impermanence of the scene, and indeed of life, is suspended by Leighton’s delicate hand.
Leighton was viewed as something of an oddity on the British art scene at first. Despite his first work exhibited at the Royal Academy being a huge hit, it would be sold to Queen Victoria, the Academy was distrustful of his European training. He would try year after year to gain membership to the Academy without success. His admittance to the higher echelons of British art was evidently important to him, and he surely believed from his own experiences that Academies were the best-suited institutions for the propagation and encouragement of art.
Eventually, however, the Academy warmed to aestheticism, the pre-Raphaelites, and Leighton, and in 1868 he would become a member. Leighton’s position as a stalwart of English art was well underway, so much so that ten years later he would become president of the academy.
The power this honour bestowed upon Leighton was put to good use. He demonstrated his love for art and the encouragement of its progression through his participation on the juries of multiple international exhibitions and the overseeing of those of the Royal Academy. His own London home, Leighton House, became a hub of artistic ingenuity and innovation. He curated a great collection of art from different periods and movements to furnish both the walls and his own creativity.
Throughout his life, Leighton drew artistic inspiration from a number of real-life sources. Although less well-known, he produced a large selection of landscape paintings most likely inspired by his travels in his younger years, as well as his life in Britain. His rich use of colour is just as evident in these images. The sea sits serenely like a slip of silk against rocky ground and hazy sky. Great trees are watered with luscious greens, and a blazing sun hits the side of the buildings in a village and bakes them in wan sandy colours.
Where Rosetti had his muse in Fanny Cornforth, Leighton’s inspiration was sparked by Dorothy Dene (1859-1899). Dene provided the perfect model for his refined, sophisticated image of female beauty. She appears in many of his works, including ‘Flaming June.’ Despite the 29-year age difference between them, Leighton’s unmarried status stirred rumours of an affair with the woman who provided such artistic nourishment. Playwright George Bernard Shaw supposedly based his play ‘Pygmalion’ upon their relationship.
As well as being a fine painter, Leighton was also a celebrated sculptor. His divinity with the classical is seen more clearly in these carefully shaped figures of male nudes. These were praised for their highly skilled rendering of both medium and subject. The anatomy is exquisitely captured. Leighton’s unmarried state has also given rise to suggestions of potential homosexual desire which perhaps finds resonance in these sculptures.A close relationship earlier in life with aristocrat Henry William Greville also points to potential romantic feelings.Whatever the case may be, Leighton’s artistry was surely greatly helped by his personal life.
In later years, Leighton garnered some negative press both from critics and his contemporaries. People stated his works had grown methodical, the relaxed poses of his female subjects predictable, lacking spontaneity. Nonetheless, Leighton had made his mark on the British art scene both through his work and through his actions as president of the Royal Academy. His masterpieces remained highly revered.
In 1895, half a million prints of ‘Flaming June’ were sold to the British public. His death in 1896 was a profound loss for the country, his resting place of St Paul’s cathedral an indicator of his esteemed position.
Despite his critics, Leighton had climbed the ladder of British art and raised himself from aberrant outsider to the only artist ever to be honoured with a peerage.
Today, his home, Leighton House, is a museum dedicated to his life, and many of his works are on display in the National Gallery. His passion and dedication to his craft shaped his career and his work.
His final words say it all: ‘My love to the Academy.’
Born in Scarborough.
Studied at the Academy of Art, Berlin.
Studied at the Academia di Belle Arti, Florence.
Studied at the Städel Art Institute, Frankfurt.
First painting exhibited at the Royal Academy. Painting bought by Queen Victoria.
Elected an associate of the Royal Academy.
Elected a member of the Royal Academy.
Elected President of the Royal Academy. Knighted at Windsor.
Resigned as President of the Royal Academy.
Made Baron Leighton of Stretton. Died in London. Buried in St Paul’s Cathedral.