Of his contemporaries, there were few artists who contrasted greater with Rossetti than Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896). Trained in Europe for more than twelve years, he studied and worked in Frankfurt, Rome, Florence, and Paris, and did not return to Britain until he was almost thirty, in 1859, after the PRB had dissolved. He became President of the Royal Academy, the bastion of conservatism in British art, in 1878, and remained so until his death eighteen years later. He died the day after he had been made Baron Leighton of Stretton.
In his early career, Leighton painted intricate accounts of art history, particularly from the Italian Renaissance, and narrative scenes from classical literature.
His 1852 account of the death of the ‘inventor’ of three-dimensional perspective projection, Brunelleschi, is itself an essay on perspective in painting. It contrasts the almost planar image of the dying Brunelleschi with seemingly impossible, but actually meticulously accurate, perspective in depth in the background view of Florence.
For Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, in 1856-58, he shows Juliet apparently dead, laid out at home before being moved to the crypt. She is surrounded by her immediate family, the Capulets, who are highlighted for emphasis. Lord and Lady Capulet are closest, with Juliet’s nurse behind. Count Paris is at the right, with Friar Laurence behind him. A queue of others leads into the background. The window reveals the two prominent towers of Verona, and at the back of the house preparations are still being made for Juliet’s wedding.
His 1868-69 approach to the legend of Electra at her father’s tomb – told in plays by Sophocles and Euripides – shows Electra in funereal black, beside a substantial mausoleum. She is in profound grief, her brows knitted, her eyes closed, their lids puffy from tears. Her arms are thrust up behind her head, where her hands are pressed against the top of her head, in a ritual gesture as if tearing her hair. This follows the ‘rules’ of classical narrative in painting. Its only peculiarity is in not showing Orestes, and it may have been Leighton’s intent to put the viewer in his place.
Leighton continued to paint occasional narratives, but more of his later works were either weakly narrative, or devoid of story altogether.
Venus Disrobing for the Bath (c 1866-67) was the first life-size female nude shown at the Royal Academy for several decades, when it was exhibited there in 1867. Bought by the same Frederick Leyland who collected Rossetti’s paintings of women, it shows Venus engaged in the trivial act of removing a sandal prior to bathing. It is a skilfully-drawn figure in an unusual position, showing off Leighton’s anatomical knowledge, but is clinical rather than erotic, and almost empty of any story or meaning.
Sadly his Helios and Rhodes (c 1869) has not taken the years well, but sufficient remains to show its embracing male and female nudes, which must have come as a shock when it was shown at the Royal Academy in 1869.
Greek Girls Picking up Pebbles by the Sea (1871) has been succinctly described by Prettejohn as a painting “in which the subject verges on nonexistence whether the standard is that of traditional History Painting or Victorian narrative painting.” The four women are collecting plain, grey pebbles for no good reason. They act as if the others are absent, and there is no sign of any interaction or other activity involved. The only interesting feature of the painting is the exaggerated billowing of their robes in the otherwise invisible breeze.
The Daphnephoria (1874-76) is a large and intricately-detailed depiction of the festival held every ninth year at Thebes, in honour of Apollo. One of several of Leighton’s works which feature music, it lacks any actor or action which might give it some narrative.
I find his Winding the Skein (c 1878) an intriguing painting. A woman is sat at the left, her hands outstretched to carry the little that remains of a skein of red wool. At the right is a young girl who is winding the wool from that skein into a ball. At her feet are four balls of wool which she has already wound. By the side of the woman, closer to the viewer, is a woven basket containing other skeins of wool in various colours. This takes place on the roof terrace of a house, behind which are distant bays and rocky scenery of the Bay of Lindos on the island of Rhodes, Greece.
There are no references to any external narrative, and it is tempting to see it as just a pleasant view, a superficial confection. I think that Leighton intended it to refer to the immediate passage of ‘momentary’ time within the much bigger scheme of ‘deep’ time, and how the days in our short lives measure up against the much slower progress of centuries and civilisations.
In Leighton’s Idyll (c 1880-81), two diaphonously-dressed women recline and listen to a young man play the flute. The woman on the right is apparently Lillie (Lily) Langtry (1853-1929), who had recently been the Prince of Wales’ mistress, but had a subsequent affair with Prince Louis of Battenberg, and may well have been pregnant by another friend at the time she modelled for this painting.
Clytie (c 1890-92) shows, against a Turnerian sky, the tiny figure of the nymph whose love for Apollo remains unrequited. According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Clytie tried to win Apollo (Helios) back from Leucothoe, but that only hardened his heart against her. So she stripped and sat naked, with neither food nor drink, for nine days, staring at the sun. She was then metamorphosed into the heliotrope (or sunflower), which turn their flowers so that they always look at the sun.
The later version, Clytie (1895-96), shows the nymph prostrating herself before the sun, her head thrown back and arms outstretched. Neither painting has any substantial narrative.
Flaming June (c 1895) is probably Leighton’s best-known image, and was one of his last paintings. It is strongly evocative of the thermal and other sensations of a hot summer’s day, and a fine display of Leighton’s figurative painting skills. But it also has to be one of his thinnest works, as it lacks any meaning, narrative, or sophistication in reading. That may well explain its continuing popularity on greetings cards and other mass media.
Aestheticism and the Aesthetic
Although Leighton never abandoned strongly narrative art, from the late 1860s onwards he produced many paintings with elements of weak narrative, sensory allusions, and classical portraits, which do not fit any one of those genres. As with Rossetti’s later works, these fit best with the approach of the Aesthetic movement, and Walter Pater’s claim that they aspire “towards the condition of music”.
When read in terms of his great narrative paintings, they appear superficial and almost trite. But we should look at them in different terms, as art made for its own sake, not for any other purpose such as telling a story.
The Story in Paintings: Frederic, Lord Leighton – Victorian eye candy?
Barringer T & Prettejohn E eds (1999) Frederic Leighton: Antiquity, Renaissance, Modernity, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 07937 1.
Prettejohn E (2007) Art for Art’s Sake: Aestheticism in Victorian Painting, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 13549 7.